Opinion: McDonald's PR takes an unhealthy turn

I felt a stab of pregnancy paranoia when I was reminded that the film Super Size Me opens next week. But then I relaxed. It's not about fatties as such; rather it is a documentary about what happened to a film maker who spent a month living entirely off a fat-filled diet of McDonald's. I don't think I am ruining the ending to say the film concludes early on that eating like this is terrible, truly terrible, for your health.

The McDonald's PR machine is already in overdrive. The emerging consumer awareness about nutrition, or at least the health hazards associated with the lack of it, is finally hitting the pockets of the big guys, as well as their political clout, and it's time they acted.

So now McDonald's and KFC advertise their healthy salad ranges (ironically, I gather, just as high in actual fat, and certainly salt, as the nemesis beefburger - don't ask me why) and McDonald's took out a rather pompous full-page advertisement in the national press to try and neutralise people who are minded to see Super Size Me and conclude that they should give up the occasional Big Mac.

Because that was McDonald's point. Most people eat this stuff occasionally, not every day, so a film like this publicising the ill-effects of such an absurd diet is misrepresenting a product range that has balanced health values after all.

I suspect you can tell that I have little sympathy for McDonald's. I accept the libertarian argument that every consumer is free to choose to choke his or her arteries. But I believe firmly that McDonald's only invested in consumer awareness of balance when it was forced to by lawyers and consumers. Why should it?

This is what the free market is all about. But it presents a heck of a problem for PR. Are we really going to continue to put our considerable abilities as an industry into perpetuating the profits of companies like this, or indeed their hypocritical efforts to say they are informing consumers of the need to balance good nutrition ?

I'd rather see a percentage of the profits gained from promoting unhealthy food given to a nutritional literacy campaign that at least ups the ante on the likelihood that the consumer, hungry on the high street, might one day say 'no, I think I'll take the kids home for a stir fry and some steamed rice instead'. Fat chance.

Julia Hobsbawm is professor of public relations at the London College of Communication. Kate Nicholas is on maternity leave.

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