Hurray, McDonald’s is Finally Making Money Again…. Definitely Not Lovin’ It.

As a long-time food reformer, working to improve the food system while empowering and educating consumers to make better choices, there are so many challenges to overcome it is easy to get overwhelmed. To prevent burnout, you have to be strategic and focus your energy where you can have the greatest impact. Despite its monolithic stature in the fast food world, for awhile there, it was easy to “ignore” McDonald’s because their market share was slowly and steadily shrinking. It finally appeared as if the shine might permanently be off Ronald’s big, red nose. Alas, it was not to be. Last week McDonald’s announced their earnings for the third quarter and showed sales in the U.S. growing, for the first time since 2013.

5 Stunning Facts about McDonald’s
I suppose it was naive to assume that McDonald’s would fold under the increasing consumer pressure and competition from chains like Chipotle and Shake Shack. With annual revenues of $28 Billion and an audience of more than 70 million customers a day, it seems they have enough “stored fat” to live off the leaner times.
Coincidentally, last week, I also received an email from our friends at Center For Science in the Public Interest, alerting us to a press release from the NGO Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood. CCFC’s mission works to end the exploitative practice of child-targeting marketing. Since FoodFight helps consumers to understand and proactively respond to the myriad ways in which our media diet drives our food diet, we are always eager to support other organizations working in this space.
This press release was sent to inform the public about an insidious marketing scheme hatched by one of the most creatives (and effective) marketing juggernaut’s of all time — you guessed it McDonald’s.
Apparently, in a bid to encourage children to associate McDonald’s with good food, family and fun, while simultaneously enticing financially strapped schools to make some quick cash, McDonald’s aggressively promotes a program called McTeacher Night. At these events, select teachers get to “work” behind the counter, serving burgers, fries and sodas to their students and their students’ families. In return McDonald’s “generously” donates approximately 15% — 20% of the evening’s proceeds. The average school earns less than $1,000 dollars.
This campaign is so disturbing on so many levels that it is hard to know where to begin. As the press release points out, it is inappropriate for a multi-billion dollar corporation to use teachers to market its unhealthy products, while “throwing pennies” at economically burdened schools. There is also the question of having teachers, whom students look up to and respect as powerful role models, peddling the very food and drink fueling an obesity epidemic that has already swallowed up more than 30% of our nation’s children.
However, McDonald’s has traditionally proven itself willing to compromise the health and wellbeing of our nation’s youth, as they continue to defend their pervasive presence in kids’ lives as part of their corporate “heritage.”
Of course, this kind of egregious behavior is not new. Back in 2011, FoodFight signed the Corporate Accountability International’s (CAI) open letter campaign to bring pressure to bear on McDonald’s to acknowledge its role in the obesity epidemic and to restrict toy giveaways in kids’ meals. In addition to partnering with every kid entertainment company on the planet, McDonald’s stands as the largest distributor of toys. At 1.5 billion toys given away per year, they rival industry giants like Hasboro and Mattel. ( In response, we received a letter from McDonald’s Director of Nutrition and Director of Global Science & Regulatory Affairs (who knew that McDonald’s is interested in global science?) outlining the myriad ways in which McDonald’s was actually a maligned, gentle giant — just trying to do the right thing by kids and their families. As outlined in the letter, McDonald’s position was that, “obesity is a complex issue and that finger pointing was not helpful to a constructive dialogue.” (As if McDonald’s is actually willing to have a dialogue with those of us in the food reform space). The letter also referenced interesting factoids such as: There are nearly 1 million options for eating out in the U.S. — McDonald’s is just one of them and McDonald’s provides a variety of balanced choices that can fit within an individual’s diet. It was basically the same old party line — an adolescent-like whining of “It’s not fair to target us because everyone else is doing it, too.” and “It’s all about the consumer making good choices.” The worst of big business as usual rhetoric.
To deflect the negative attention from this and other public health advocacy efforts, McDonald’s engages in the time honored “health washing” game of offering heavily processed, sugar, fat and salt ladened food that appeals to kids while trying to satisfy the modestly health-conscious parent. For example, in 2011 McDonald’s added apple slices to every Happy Meal and reduced french fry offerings from 2.4 oz to 1.1 oz, along with the option for fat-free milk, because we all know, when given the option, kids will pick milk over soda — right? While the 20% reduction of calories makes for interesting talking points, the average 500-600 calorie dump per meal is still way too much for most children. As the Huffington Post pointed out, this does not make the Happy Meal healthy, merely slightly less unhealthy.
Any way you slice it (or Apple Dipper it), most of the options offered by McDonald’s are not good for children. The meals are simply too high in sugar, salt and fat - and too low in fiber and other important micronutrients. Kids, particularly young children, do not have the freedom to exercise control of their eating and dining habits. As long as McDonald’s continues to win the battle of perception of “working with parents” to provide “balanced” and low cost meals (mostly by underpaying its workers and using the cheapest commodity products available on the market) kids will continue to consume too many empty calories while developing palates that crave highly processed and chemically adulterated food.
One reason it is important to support parent advocacy campaigns promoted by CSPI and CAI is that we are beginning to see a small but meaningful decay in McDonald’s core business: families, who are more commonly saying “We’re hatin’ it.” After seven consecutive quarters of posting losses and nose-diving sales in the U.S., it seems that some American families are waking up to the reality that McDonald’s is not currently in the market of promoting health and healthy outcomes for children. Let’s not give them easy access to teachers as a lifeboat to rescue a sinking ship.
To view a version of the CCFC release with linked references, please click here.