There's no sugarcoating the fact that we are currently raising the sickest generation of children in modern history. They're the heaviest kids we've ever seen, and from 10-year-old diabetics, to teenagers with hardening of the arteries, diet-related diseases that used to only be seen in adults are now regularly found in kids. While there is no singular cause for our dietary and weight-relatable woes, there's zero doubt that our fast-food culture is a major contributor – and as the burden of society's diet and weight-relatable illnesses grow, so too should the spotlight on the business and advertising practices of the fast food industry.
Today, the spotlight shines on McDonald's involvement with charities such as Ronald McDonald House with the publication of Eat Drink Politics' Michele Simon's report How McDonald's Exploits Philanthropy and Targets Children. Simon's 35-page report explores the dollars and cents behind McDonald's charitable contributions, and her conclusions aren't heartening. While charities such as Ronald McDonald House unquestionably provide an incredible service to society, to McDonald's they provide an incredible smokescreen to shield them against scrutiny, along with increased sales.
The report leads with a quote attributed to former McDonald's CEO Fred Turner: McDonald's first got into philanthropy "for very selfish reasons" as an inexpensive way to get "your name before the public;" the motivation "was probably 99 percent commercial;" and while there are no laws prohibiting the use of charity as a sales driver for corporations, when it comes to products whose consumption are linked with illness, society has already drawn a line. Tremendous social service or not, it seems doubtful that society would accept a Marlboro Mission for the homeless, or a Budweiser Burn unit in a local hospital – let alone agree to cobranded sales with cigarettes or beer companies to raise funds for those endeavors – and yet that's precisely what we see with McDonald's.
Lest you for a moment think that McDonald's involvement with Ronald McDonald House is about altruism rather than sales and brand goodwill, consider this fact from Simon's report. The $18 million McDonald's the corporation spent on a two-month long co-branded Happy Meals/Ronald McDonald House television advertising campaign was three times as much as the corporation donated to Ronald McDonald House Charities over the course of an entire year. Simon also points out that despite the valuable co-branding, which suggests that McDonald's is the primary funding source for the charity, the vast majority of Ronald McDonald funding in fact comes from sources other than McDonald's, with some Houses reporting that as little as 7 percent of their annual funding comes from their rather distant parent.
There's no questioning the value of Ronald McDonald House Charities to those who need their services, just as there's no questioning the value they provide McDonald's in polishing their brand, creating good will and promoting sales and profit. There was a time when the tobacco industry gave generously in a similar bid to benefit from co-branded good will, yet now it would be unthinkable to donate or support a tobacco-branded charity. Perhaps the time is now to rethink co-branded food industry charities and charitable donations, and as Simon suggests, in the case of McDonald's, rename and rebrand Ronald McDonald House Charities and recognize that food industry money with strings that tie directly to illness may not be in society's best interests to continue to take – however worthy the cause.
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Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, where he’s the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute—dedicated to non-surgical weight management since 2004. Dr. Freedhoff sounds off daily on his award-winning blog, Weighty Matters, and you can follow him on Twitter. Dr. Freedhoff’s latest book, The Diet Fix: Why Everything You’ve Been Taught About Dieting is Wrong and the 10-Day Plan to Fix It, will be published by Random House’s Crown/Harmony in 2014.