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Blinded to the Harm of the Food Industry

Posted Feb 03 2009 11:19pm

by Amy Ustjanauskas

At a recent seminar, many of us were introduced to the concept of “mommy-bloggers,” mothers who chat online about the food that they give to their children, and exchange tips and advice with one another on how to keep their kids healthy. An example was given, of mommy-bloggers promoting and being spokespersons for the fast food giant, McDonald’s. I am sure that I was not the only one in the room who found it counterintuitive that mothers, who by nature want what is best for their children, would be promoting a company that provides their kids with unhealthy food. Well, in fact these women do exist. They are what McDonald’s calls, “The Moms’ Quality Correspondents, real moms that like you care about what their families eat” and “have unprecedented access to the McDonald’s system to see how McDonald’s serves millions of customers quality food every day.” While the moms are “free” to blog about their good and bad thoughts about McDonald’s, in my opinion, their support for this campaign in itself implies that they do not see the greater harm of the fast food industry.

Sure, this is an extreme example of a group of parents not seeing the harm in the fast food industry, and contrived in some ways because I am sure their involvement is akin to a business deal. However, all of this talk made me start to think about what factors might be contributing to some people, including parents, not seeing the unhealthy food industry and food marketers as partly responsible for the obesity problem. I started to generate some hypotheses:

  • Some of the food industry’s marketing campaigns are downright useful. Take Kraft, and its new iPhone application, iFood Assistant, that provides users with thousands of food ideas, Kraft advertisements, step-by-step recipes, and built-in shopping lists. Consumers not only seem to like this form of food advertising, as it is ranked #2 for lifestyle applications on the iPhone, but they are also willing to pay a fee to be advertised to, 99 cents. Meanwhile, Kraft is collecting information from its users to better target them in the future, but users seem to have missed this point due to the sheer usefulness of this tool. Could the fact that the food industry is making life a little easier for consumers be blinding consumers from seeing that the same industry is playing a role in the obesity epidemic?

  • Many food marketing campaigns are fusing their product advertising with worthy causes. Could this association make it harder for consumers to see the food industry as partly responsible in the obesity crisis? Quaker is donating a bowl of oatmeal to the childhood hunger organization, Share Our Strength, for every UPC code they receive from a Quaker hot cereal product. Pepsi congratulates our new President Obama in its campaign, “ Dear Mr. President,” that is promoting positive change in our country: “Refresh the Nation.” Starbucks similarly is promoting Obama’s call for service, asking people to pledge five hours of community service and in return they will “salute you…with a free tall brewed coffee.” Maybe it is harder for consumers to see food marketers and members of the food industry as partly responsible in the obesity problem, when they see in the media that these same companies are supporting many worthy causes.

  • Or could it be that people think that many companies in the food industry are already changing, becoming healthier? Going back to the mommy-bloggers, you can read more on the McDonald’s website about how McDonald’s, “wants the best for your kids, and…that’s why they’ve made quality a top priority.” The website rants about how, “McDonald’s Premium Salads are made with up to 14 types of farm-fresh gourmet greens,” “McDonald’s World Famous Fries are made with Grade A potatoes from top quality farms,” and “McDonald’s beef patties are made with USDA inspected 100% pure beef.” Are people interpreting this advertisement as pro-health change occurring within the food industry? Do people interpret many players in the food industry to be making some healthy changes, and therefore not to be held partly responsible for the obesity epidemic?

There are indeed many other reasons why people fail to see the food industry and food marketing as partly responsible in the obesity crisis; some are unaware of deceptive food marketing practices while others think that responsibility lies within the individual, and not the industry. However, the above hypotheses are some interesting possibilities to think about in that they look at how people’s overly positive estimations and perceptions of the food industry may be influencing their view of the food industry’s role in the obesity crisis.

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