Praise is not a free lunch

Praise is not a free lunch

I was one of those who expressed qualified praise for McDonald’s Happy Meal changes: Apple slices, smaller French fries, slightly better beverage options. Other commenters, particularly “Appetite For Profit” author Michele Simon, drew different conclusions, which she discusses in a blog post  headlined, “Who Put McDonald’s In Charge of Kids’ Health?" at appetiteforprofit.com.

I don’t know her, but I follow her Twitter feed and respect what she writes, including this one, even though I find enough disagreement in it that I feel compelled to rejoin, even on a day when I should be writing other stuff.

Let’s start with the headline: To my mind, we did. Doing nothing more than taking full advantage of the capitalist process, they advertised and promoted until we made them, via our billions and billions of purchases, the leader in fast food. They could have spent all that promotional cash and if we hadn’t bought what they were peddling, they would have failed. But we have bought, and now they have enormous influence.

Simon and Marion Nestle, among others, say the changes aren’t very significant — “So all the fuss — and McDonald’s has gotten huge press over this — is about 3 or 4 small slices of apples, one ounce less of French fries, and less sodium,” Nestle wrote on her blog.  “These may be steps in the right direction, but I’d call them tiny baby steps.” — which is about what I said.

I don’t think McDonald’s acted out of goodness. Apart from how it might affect future profits — who will it sell to if everyone dies from poor nutrition? — I don’t think they care one bit about the health of America.  I am hardly ever in the position of defending McDonald’s.

But they still took steps in the right direction.

Simon sees this action only as part PR, part self-serving strategy “to stave off more laws like the one passed in San Francisco to set nutrition standards for Happy Meals, not to mention lawsuits like the one filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest based on deceptive marketing.”

I have no doubt McDonald’s wanted good PR from the announcement, and I have no doubt that McDonald’s self-servingly considers every angle of every move it makes.

But they still took steps. Not big enough, nothing to be satisfied by, but steps nevertheless.

In language I’m sure I’ve used, Simon rails against “corporations who answer only to shareholders,” but one of the ways corporations please their owners is to respond to the marketplace, and so I’d ascribe a third motivation to the Happy Meal shuffle: We influenced them into it. People like Simon, Nestle, and me, but far more so, buyers in the marketplace. A company doesn’t thrive on PR or regulatory victories in the long term; it prospers by listening, at least with one ear, to what customers want, and McDonald’s wouldn’t have made these moves if they didn’t think they would sell. They will expand upon them if they do; they'll roll them back if they don't.

The keys for us, the public, are 1) to welcome the move without implying it’s enough, in any way, and 2) for those who buy McDonald’s “food,” to buy slightly more of these meals, not as a public duty (heaven forfend!) but as a consumer expression that this is a better option than the old one. That’s how to talk to corporations, because they’re listening to the marketplace. I don’t like it, but this whole arena is consumerist; that’s just the way it is.

Simon says that after calling out McDonald’s announcement for the distraction is it, we should “get back to the much harder job of policy change: to convince our democratically elected leaders (or judges if that’s what it takes) that McDonald’s should not be allowed to market to children, period.” I’m down with her thrust, that public health would be much better off if junk-food producers couldn’t market to children — that’s a no-brainer — and yet, our “democratically elected leaders” have been letting them do it for decades. In our bought-and-paid-for political system, I have little hope of getting change via that route. But while corporations have many weapons with which to fight regulation, they can’t argue with the marketplace.

For the record, I don’t buy from McDonald’s, not even the few things I would consider ingesting — salad, diet soda, or decaf coffee — because I don’t think the company is a force for good and I don’t want to support it even a little. But when an entity moves in a direction I’ve been trying to urge, praise in equal measure is called for, instead of faulting what it hasn’t done yet. Being generous doesn’t mean we have to, or should, stop pushing for more.

Michael Prager is an author, journalist, and blogger who writes about obesity, sustainability and other food issues. He lives with his wife and son in Arlington, Mass.