World Childrens Day

November 20 at McDonald’s – Save the date to help the world’s children” goes the current McDonald’s corporate campaign slogan to promote this year’s Justin Timberlake and Williams sisters backed World Children’s Day. As you read this, thousands of McDonald’s restaurants in more than 100 countries will be gearing up towards the now annual cheeseburgers and charity event. World Children’s Day, if you didn’t know, was the name given to last year’s Kofi Annan and UNICEF endorsed McDonald’s “history-making fundraising initiative” created to help disadvantage children worldwide from money raised on the day by Big Mac and Egg McMuffin sales and the like. World Children’s Day is also a trademark of McDonald’s which, by some happy accident, happens to fall on the anniversary of the UN adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

“McDonald’s is proud to invite the world into our restaurants to help children everywhere” says McDonald’s Chairman and CEO Jim Cantalupo, adding that, “through this annual event, we continue our tradition of giving back and helping those in need. With our 30,000 restaurants in more than 100 countries, McDonald’s is uniquely positioned to reach millions of children who need our help.” Geoff Rayner, Chair of the UK Public Health Association (UKPHA) which promotes the development of healthy public policy in the public health sector, is dismissive of Cantalupo’s assertion that McDonald’s is the best place to go to help the world’s children. “Mr Cantaloupo apparently wants to make giving to worthwhile causes conditional upon first having visited a McDonald’s fast food outlet” he says. “This is a quite inappropriate link between charity and commercial activity and should be opposed by all parents who are concerned both about rising dietary related disease and overconsumption in the rich world and the underconsumption and poor health conditions in the developing world.”

It’s hard to see what exactly McDonald’s is uniquely positioned or best placed to offer the world’s millions of needy children, other than a quick route to obesity, in its 30,000 plus restaurants in over 100 countries. Another McDonald’s executive not quite on nodding terms with the principle of cause and effect, Ken Barun, the President and CEO of Ronald McDonald House Charities (the usual sole beneficiary of money raised), claims in the corporate PR puff promoting the big day that “the beauty of World Children’s Day is the simplicity by which people everywhere can help children. Every visit to a participating McDonald’s restaurant to purchase select items on this day helps us continue our mission of directly improving the health and well being of children worldwide.”

Don’t worry, you read right. He really did say “our mission of directly improving the health and well being of children worldwide.” Sadly for McDonald’s, a great many health professionals do not agree with Barun’s lofty claims. Last year a group of more than 50 health academics and professionals from around the world wrote an open letter to UNICEF, calling on the organisation to withdraw its support for the McDonald’s backed day, claiming that the partnership fundamentally opposed the charity’s supposed aims:

McDonald’s is a global leader in the marketing of junk food that is creating soaring rates of childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes, and that is disrupting traditional ways of food preparation in families and cultures. It is truly a challenge to see how this partnership with McDonald’s is consistent with UNICEF’s claim to promote ‘good nutrition’ to the world’s children. As you know, McDonald’s markets precisely the high-added-fat, high-added-sugar junk food that undermines good nutrition for the world’s children.

Announcing last year’s heavily criticised partnership, UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy said that, “we are very pleased that McDonald’s is expanding its support for children around the world. The opportunity…will help us reach a whole new generation of children whose parents supported UNICEF when they were kids.” This is the same UNICEF director who previously warned of the catastrophic effects of jumping into bed with big business when she observed that “it is dangerous to assume that the goals of the private sector are somehow synonymous with those of the United Nations, because most emphatically they are not.” Bellamy remained unmoved by the open letter and the event went ahead as planned. The words “pot”, “kettle” and “black” spring to mind.

The World Health Organisation has identified obesity as a global problem, citing the alarming statistic that over 300 million people are now obese. In the UK, the chairman of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has warned of a junk food timebomb which threatens to engulf a whole generation of British children grown fat on a diet of fast food and sedentary living. One in 25 British children is now classified as being obese.

Speaking to The Observer newspaper (09/11/03), FSA Chairman Sir John Krebs stated that, “what we are faced with is a situation where, if nothing is done to stop the trend, for the first time in a hundred years life expectancy will actually go down.”

According to the influential International Obesity Task Force (IOTF), one in five adult Britons is clinically obese, and two in five are overweight. The IOTF has also warned that more than 40% of men and women in Britain could be obese within a single generation, making the UK second only to the US in the global obesity stakes.

Speaking at the influential International Obesity Task Force (IOTF) conference, Susan Jebb of the Medical Research Council’s Human Nutrition Research Unit called upon the British government to instigate measures to turn the rising child obesity tide. “Most children are not fat. It is not too late if we act now. In adults we are just 10 years behind the USA and that is nothing at all. Ten years ago we all thought Americans were huge and that is the situation here now. We seem to be just following in the footsteps of the United States.”

In September the FSA published a report, “Does Food Promotion Influence Children?”, which concluded that advertising to children does impact on their preferences, purchase behaviour and consumption of food. Moreover, report author Professor Gerard Hastings of the University of Strathclyde Centre for Social Marketing, concluded that “these effects are apparent not just for different brands but also for different types of food.” Reading out his 1997 judgement in the infamous McLibel trial brought by McDonald’s against London Greenpeace anti-McDonald’s leafleters Dave Morris and Helen Steel, the Honourable Mr Justice Bell said that “…the sting of the leaflet to the effect that the Plaintiffs exploit children by using them, as more susceptible subjects of advertising, to pressurise their parents into going to McDonald’s is justified. It is true.” (in his two hour summing up, Mr Justice Bell also found that the two McLibel defendants had shown that McDonald’s falsely advertised its food as nutritious and did indeed risk the health of long-term regular customers).

McDonald’s annual appropriation of 20th November for World Children’s Day shows that some lessons are never learnt. Or ar just better marketed. Although the FSA published a discussion paper this month on a range of possible options for action on the promotion and advertising of foods that could improve children’s diet and health, the agency has come under attack from some quarters for its preferred option of exploring voluntary agreements before proposing new legislation which would force companies to act. Only this week, leading advertising agency Abbott Mead Vickers – BBDO were forced into making an embarassing public apology by the Health Select Committee concerning a private brief made for Walkers Crips which encouraged children to believe that “Wotsits [Walkers brand] are for me. I am going to pester mum for them when she next goes shopping.”

According to Professor Philip James, President of the Coronary Prevention Group and Chairman of the IOTF, “we need even stronger action to deal with marketing to children and not fudged options such as those just suggested by the Food Standards Agency. Politicians need to understand that regulation is required and that it is a popular move. It is what the majority of parents in every country we work with places as one of their top priorities. The issue then is whether governments, local authorities and schools are working for the people or for commercial interests.”

Professor James also criticised the promotional schemes run by the likes of Cadbury’s (which link food purchases to the provision of sports equipment for schools) as sending out the wrong signals to a young generation who are being targeted to overconsume products that contribute to their increasing obesity, while perpetuating the myth that they are emulating their sporting idols. Such schemes however, are only the thin edge of the wedge compared to McDonald’s trump card marriage of consumption and charity.

More people now recognise the Golden Arches than they do the Christian Cross. American kids are more likely to recognise Ronald McDonald than they are Santa Claus. Throw Justin Timberlake into this mix, add a frisson of compassionate consumption and you have the stuff of PR dreams.

The UKPHA’s Geoff Rayner compares McDonald’s charity activities with the munificence of the Victorian factory owner who allows his employees a free chicken for Christmas. McDonald’s might proudly point to the fact that more than $12 million was raised in 24 hours last year, but while the charitable endeavour itself may be of value, the association with a fast food company is not only unfortunate but appalling. Rayner suggests giving money directly to bona fide charities working in the developing world as a more practical and worthwhile alternative to bolstering an already huge corporation’s public relations stock.

“We’re not asking you to give money, we’re asking you to eat at McDonald’s” said Canadian singer Celine Dion at last year’s event with a disarming honesty which has thus far evaded McDonald’s management. November 20 at McDonald’s – Save the date to help the world’s children. Add the words “become fat” or “swell McDonald’s coffers” and you’re getting somewhere nearer the truth.

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