Despite its “healthy” new image, McDonald’s is a health care burden


CARTOON/Carlos Latuff/Latuff Cartoons

Stepping into a McDonald’s in Dublin, the front window is covered with little yellow cut-outs of children’s hands. Donation boxes are displayed prominently on the countertop when you order. By donating €1 ($1.13) with your Happy Meal order, McDonald’s can transform you, body and soul, by putting tasty food in your child’s belly and a warm glow in your heart.

The donation goes to Ronald McDonald House, a charity whose Founding Mission Partner is McDonald’s. The charity offers vital accommodation to the parents of sick children. Its latest fundraising campaign aims to build a 53-room house at Ireland’s new national children’s hospital. A vital, noble cause, but how and why is it related to the burger and fries you just bought? Let’s step back a little and view the fuller picture.

McDonald’s has sustained catastrophic brand damage in the last two decades, as the tide turns against both the industry of fast food and its brand behemoth, due to health, labor, and environmental criticisms. McDonaldisation, McJobs, McJunk, McLibel are all common currency to describe the low wages, precariousness, slick marketing and poor foods, cultural imperialism, and economically homogenizing force that McDonald’s represents.

Of course, there have been recent moves on the part of the brand to make its Happy Meals more healthy, but this step blindsides us from McDonald’s most important strategy of recent years: the dedicated way the brand builds an enchanted, seamless, full sensory experience. To put it simply, it’s hard to order those carrot sticks in a place that smells of delectable French fries and has touch screen menus that foreground big strawberry sundaes.

Further undermining its “healthy” new image, consumer research has demonstrated that adding healthy additions to what is otherwise an unhealthy eating environment actually prompts people to eat even more unhealthily. McDonald’s sales say it all: while they have added salads and fruit to their menus, this is only a tiny fraction of their market. This reflects the deep disconnect between their corporate social responsibility speak and their strategic ambition to “convert casual to committed customers” and “enhance snack and treat offerings.”

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