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Posts Tagged ‘advertising’

A Lot of Fuss about Sugar

NYC Dept of Health and Mental Hygiene

NYC Dept of Health and Mental Hygiene

…and deservedly so.

I’ve been reading a lot of Marion Nestle’s blog, Food Politics.  I’ve found her writing to be well researched, thoughtful, and sensible about all things related to food and, well, the politics of food.  Her book What To Eat is on the shelf in my science classroom, and it has been helpful as students research the pros and cons of fish farming (for a unit of debates in environmental science).  Through her recent posts I’ve learned quite a bit about the intricacies of sugar policy.  Complicated stuff.  Here’s a post of hers with some good background information on sugar (after her appearance on the Colbert Report).  But the main point of this post is about all the beverage and advertising ruckus that’s been happening recently in New York.

Marion is keeping tabs on the situation;  she has been updating things on via her Twitter account, and here is what I have learned from her so far:

1) the American Heart Association finally came around to recommending that people eat less sugar.  It’s amazing to me that this is a recent recommendation. But there it is.

2) the New York City Health Department comes up with an ad campaign called “Pour Off The Pounds” (that they’ve spent significant money on) to get people to drink less soda.  There are gobs of fat pouring out of the soda bottle, which is a nice touch.  See the NYTimes’s take on it here.  This ad campaign is related to the AHA recommendation (though not a result of it), as there are benefits to having fewer people run into health problems related to over-consumption of sugar and soft drinks.  Here’s an ABC News spot on soda and extra calories.  So NYC Dept of Health and Mental Hygiene tells people to drink less soda.  Tell people to be a bit healthier.  It’s like mom telling you to eat your vegetables and not so much candy.  Simple, right?  Ah, no…

3) the American Beverage Association freaks out.  They sell A LOT of soda, you know.  Plenty of sugar.  So they weren’t happy first when the AHA came out and said that people should consume less soda: their response (which sounds frighteningly close to those HFCS commercials, which were just uncomfortable.)  And then they certainly weren’t excited about this ad campaign: their response to that. “We can’t have NY telling people not to drink soda!!  It’s not our fault that people are fat.” (my paraphrase).  What a mess.

It would be naive to think that sugar issues should be more simple.  It reminds me of those “This is Your Brain on Drugs” commercials from the 80’s.  There’s some history out there for shocking ads from various health departments.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  Don’t smoke, don’t do drugs.  That’s not new.  But what would have happened if there was a response from the drug community after the “Brain on Drugs” commercials?  Like outrage, you know, a press release about such a prejudiced ad campaign…

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green-archesI’ve posted on greenwashing before.  I like Wikipedia’s use of the synonym “green sheen” in their description of the term.  In June I posted a link to an article in the Guardian about advertising and misinformation in relation to actual sustainability and environmental benefit.  Greenwashing is common, it’s unregulated, and it’s big money.  But I read an article the other day about McDonald’s from the Environmental News Network (ENN.com) and CleanTechnica.com that was very interesting.  It’s worth reading.

The main question the article poses is this: Is McDonald’s a green company?

Well, what constitutes a “green” company?  And how would one go about evaluating its “greenness”?  That’s an awkward term, I know.  But is the company doing things like cutting its emissions, purchasing renewable energy, reducing its overall carbon footprint, building sustainably, supporting local farms?  McDonald’s can answer “yes” to some of those things, but not to all of them.  How about if it was partnering with organizations to convert used cooking oil to biodiesel (Brazil, Chile, Argentina), reducing water usage (Australia), and providing electric vehicle recharging stations (North Carolina)?  Sure, points for those things, and it’s great that they’re doing anything along those lines.  But then you need to weigh those positive efforts against the company’s existing footprint and/or track record.  And this is where you lose points.  In the case of McDonald’s, many points.  Now we’re into the issues of fast food and obesity in America, liberal use of high fructose corn syrup, conventional beef and the major problems associated with CAFOs, support of monoculture crops (by sheer tonnage of what they purchase), genetically modified crops and transgenic produce, contributions to overall human health; the list goes on.  Is “green fast food” an oxymoron?  Maybe.  I’m not saying that it has to be.  But it’s not as cost effective if you don’t cut all those corners, you know.  (See Annie Leonard’s “The Story of Stuff” for more on externalizing costs).  If another company was taking some of the steps listed above that McDonald’s is taking (according to its own Corporate Responsibility page — “Look, we’re green!!”) would we laud those achievements?  Is it a step in the right direction, or just a drop in the bucket?

I’m not shilling for Mickey D’s here.  I’ll answer my own question and say that I think it’s a small drop in a big bucket, hence the title of this post.  I’ll admit, I like their fries, and I’ll stop for a chocolate shake on a long road trip, but I don’t generally eat there.  If it comes down to a gas-and-a-burger stop on the road, whether it’s the golden arches, BK, or Wendy’s, I don’t care that much.  It’s either that or gas station Fritos.  Others have bemoaned the beast that is Fast Food in America, and I’m not going to rehash that now.  There’s plenty of research out there.  For additional reading and watching (for a cheery summer afternoon), see Supersize Me, Fast Food Nation, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, etc…

Let’s put aside the oxymoron for a second.  What if McDonald’s is becoming a force for good?  Let’s not get ahead of ourselves; they’re not there yet, I know.  Long way to go.  Maybe here’s the real question: What would they have to do for you to say that McDonald’s has become a force for good? There’s plenty of room for improvement.  According to Yahoo! Finance, at the end of 2008 McDonald’s was operating 31,967 restaurants in 118 countries.  Think about all the potatoes and beef that they buy!  Small changes in policies and purchasing from the front office could have huge ramifications.  Well, they do have huge ramifications now, just not good ones.  Think of what they could be doing.

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