From Greece to Greasy... 2012 Summer Olympics
As the world’s most elite athletes push their physical abilities to the limits and set new records, spectators and tourists will be pushing their waistlines while filling up on burgers, fries and soda pop. McDonalds has been a major Olympic sponsor since 1968 and this year they’ve built the world’s largest McDonalds ever – two stories, 20 checkout tills and 1500 seats. They expect to serve 1200 customers an hour and sell £3 million of fast food during the games.
Across the media, controversy arises about the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) decision to allow McDonalds (and other controversial supporters such as Coca-Cola) as major sponsors of the games. As with any sponsorship, it comes down to financial motivations. Mr. Rogge, President of the IOC, suggested himself that without those sponsors, international federations, Olympic committees and city organizers would be in great financial trouble.
Okay, I get that without sponsorship money some of these events would simply cease to exist. And McDonalds supports all kinds of athletic groups around Canada. But where do we draw the line on social ridiculousness? What about ethical responsibility? I mean really, the largest McDonalds in the world? I see a few problems with this:
The World Health Organization estimates that 43 million children under the age of 5 are overweight or obese and 35 million of these children live in developing countries. This is expected to rise to 60 million children in 2020.
Children learn the brands of companies at a very young age and research shows they want to eat food that comes from a branded package than food without branding. In Canada, we have only just begun to address the marketing of fast food to children but have a long way to go. We have yet to address the toys, the child-friendly mascots and the on-site jungle gyms. When kids understand the brand and are absolutely influenced by marketing (toys with a Happy Meal), how can they not be influenced by the acknowledgement of the largest McDonalds in the world, the brand-sponsorship and the gross advertising during the 17 days of summer Olympics?
According to Marion Nestle, Paulette Groddard Professor in the department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health, the food industry is mostly focused on profit over nutrition. “Big Food” companies are not addressing food access at all – 1 billion people in the world are hungry while 2 billion people are over weight. Few multinational food companies increasingly drive what people eat. This is not just about profitability and successful business, it’s about the politics of government lobbying and having a strong influence of the entire food industry worldwide.
However one looks at it, building the largest McDonalds in the world for the Olympic games just sends the wrong message. We can continue to point the finger of obesity on the individual, focusing on the behavioural issue, but research shows this has little clout and is just not solving the issue. The global obesity epidemic is very much an environmental, a social, a cultural and a political issue. McDonalds plays into each of these roles very well. The controversial sponsorship of Big Food companies such as McDonalds and Coca-Cola will likely continue for years to come. Bottom line, they are driven by maximizing profit. So, as individuals subject to the marketing and stronghold of Big Food companies, what can we do? That’s a tough one and I certainly don’t have an answer. Just don’t get caught hungry, without a plan for food and likely within a few steps of a fast food chain. Everyone’s life is busy so let’s stop using that as an excuse. Leave the house full, bring healthy snacks on the road and have a plan for the next meal. Aim for a happy life as opposed to a Happy Meal.
Robinson, Borzekowski, Matheson, Kraemer (2007) Effects of fast food branding on young children's taste preferences. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 161(8), August 2007.