In what has been dubbed the “Monthly McDonald’s Misery Watch,” the fast food giant reported that May brought in yet another round of slipping sales. The next day, McDonald’s tried to steer the conversation away from its dismal results by announcing two new PR hires. Robert Gibbs is now McDonald’s Global Chief Communications Officer and Silvia Lagnado is its Global Chief Marketing Officer. Gibbs is President Obama’s former White House Press Secretary and Lagnado shilled alcohol for Bacardi. She is also known for creating Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” which like Virginia Slims’ “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” uses the cultural battle for women’s equality as a formulaic selling strategy.
What amazed me about McDonald’s hiring announcement was how the struggling corporation managed to find a way to anger both conservatives and liberals. The connection to the Obama administration made conservatives see red and ask, “Has Ronald McDonald just signed his own death warrant?” Meanwhile, progressives decried the hypocrisy behind the crony capitalism. As Ben Mathis-Lilley of Slate Magazine put it:
“Is there any crony capitalist who is more of a “crony” than a longtime top aide of the president? And is there any corporation more corporate than McDonald’s?”
In addition to those questions, the Gibbs hiring brought up other concerns. Will liberals continue to let our trusted government institutions like schools and libraries be used to reinforce McDonald’s marketing lies? Now that Obama’s former press secretary is part of McDonald’s, will conservatives rethink letting the corporation use schools as ads? What will this mean for McDonald’s manipulation of public health policy?
McDonald’s claims that Gibbs and Lagnado are needed to build a “progressive burger company,” but as I said at the shareholders meeting, progressive corporations don’t use schools as ads or tell kids that fast food is lovin’.
Fortunately, more voices are joining the call for corporations like McDonald’s to stop marketing to children. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has released a new series of infographics detailing how Big Food sounds a lot like Big Tobacco. As CSPI’s Director of Nutrition Policy, Margo Wootan put it:
“A similar fight is still underway around unhealthy foods, like soda, fast food, and junky snack foods. The stakes for health and health care costs are as high as for smoking given the unnecessarily high rates of diet-related obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. The battlegrounds are the same: schools, hospitals, public spaces, restaurants, retail stores, marketing…I have no doubt where this fight is headed. The question is, how long will it take and what role will you play? Will we put up with Big Food PR executives dishing out disingenuous pablum to the public while Big Food’s sales experts and lobbyists use their marketing and political might to continue to make healthy eating like swimming upstream?”
In Northern California the answers to these questions appear to be coming down on the side of public health. First came the Berkeley soda tax victory followed by the city of Davis requiring water or milk, not soda, be the primary option on kids’ menus. Then the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed legislation requiring health warnings on sugary drink advertising, prohibiting city dollars from being spent on sugary drinks, and preventing the advertising of sugar-sweetened drinks on city-owned property or at city facilities.
The TV show Mad Men unerringly captured how marketers managed to sell cigarettes in a world that was waking up to the idea that they have serious health consequences. It was fitting that the series ended with the song “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” since soda is seen by many public health experts as the new cigarette. Just as the social climate changed around the marketing of cigarettes, it is now changing around the marketing of fast food and soda. It’s time for the Don Drapers of Big Macs and Coke to recognize that targeting children with their advertising campaigns has become a losing strategy.