Public Relations in the Fast Food Industry

by Abrar Almajnuni

[This is the fourth article in a series of guest posts on professional ethics by graduate students in the Master of Arts (Communication) and the Master of Public Relations degree programs at Mount Saint Vincent University as a part of my Ethics & Law course, a required part of  their graduate programs.]

Box with a Hamburger and French FriesOn January 4th 1954, Hill & Knowlton, acting on behalf of the tobacco industry published an article in the New York Times and 400 other newspapers called “Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers[1].

The ad suggested that although there had been recent reports that cigarette smoking was linked to cancer, they doubted the scientific credibility of the studies and further believed that cigarettes were not harmful to people’s health.  Because of this belief, the ad suggested that the tobacco industry would fund research into the issue.   It was signed by several CEOS and presidents of leading tobacco manufacturers. Following the publication of this advertisement, the tobacco industry took systematic steps to dilute the credibility of the scientific evidence that tobacco causes cancer[2] Public relations departments for the industry developed messages that emphasized personal responsibility.  In the decades that followed this public relations blitz, millions of people throughout the world have died from health issues related to smoking

For public relations professionals, the   historic precedent set by the tobacco industry is an example of how unethical the practice can become. Here was a product that was increasingly associated with health damage, yet public relations campaigns and tactics were used to mask the truth. .  There may be an inclination to see the lessons of this period in the history and take comfort that ethics in practice has evolved beyond this level. However, there is a possibility that it has not.

Arguably, at this point in history the fast food industry is wreaking havoc on the health of some of the most vulnerable members of the society- i.e. children. According to studies conducted by the Institute of Medicine, the fast food industry intentionally directs their advertising to children who are too young to tell the difference between truth and advertising, thus enticing them to eat food that is packed with fat, sugar and salt and low in the vital nutrients[3]The result is that obesity in children is rapidly rising and along with it, many of the diseases that are associated with obesity.  These include diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and cancer[4]

An analysis of the pattern of public relations messages developed by the fast food industry bears a significant resemblance to the messages that were crafted by the tobacco industry.  Scholars Brownell and Warner undertook a systematic comparison of the two industries and found the following similarities in the messages that were being delivered by spokespeople for these industry:

  1. That choice of food is about personal responsibility and freedom, and  government regulation is antithetical to freedom;
  2. The use of scare words like communism, socialism and fascists e.g.  “food police”;
  3. Suggestions  that  studies  regarding the effect of the junk food industry are “junk science”;
  4. Indicating that people should exercise rather than diet;
  5. Suggesting that there is no such thing as good food or bad food: it’s all about balance.

It is the responsibility of public relations practitioners to frame the industry’s communications with the public. Although it is arguably difficult for the practitioner to make decisions about the way that messages are presented to the public, the facts of the case suggest that here are ethical problems with the industries current framing of the message. Consider the full page public relations piece that was printed in the New York Times earlier this year…

nyt ad re fast food ads
Source: Nestle, M. (2006). Food Marketing and Childhood Obesity — A Matter of Policy. New England of Journal Medicine, 354(24), 2527-2529.

In it, Coca Cola promises to offer low or no-calorie drinks and emphasizes exercise, rather than diet.

The problem is that for the fast food industry, like the tobacco industry, the problems with obesity and its related diseases would best be helped if people ate less of their products, which runs counter to their main objective.  Messina[5]suggests that knowing the public’s best interest is not always possible, whereas in some cases there is a strong case that it can be identified. In that instance, what should a public relations professional do?

Abrar ALmajnuni is a student in the Master of Public Relations degree program at Mount Saint Vincent University. 

References

Brownell, K., & Warner, K. (2009). The Perils of Ignoring History: Big Tobacco Played Dirty and Millions Died. How Similar Is Big Food? Millbank Quarterly, 260-294.

Hill, J. (n.d). On the topic of the Hill & Knowlton public relations campaign formulated on behalf of the Tobacco Industry Research Committee. Retrieved from ttlaonline.com: http://www.ttlaonline.com/HKWIS/hksplash.htm

McGinnis, J., Gootman, J., & Kraak, V. (2006). Food marketing to children and youth: threat or opportunity? Washington, D.C: National Academic Press.

Messina, A. (2007). Public relations, the public interest and persuasion: an ethical approach. Journal of Communication Management, 11(1), 29 – 52.

Nestle, M. (2006). Food Marketing and Childhood Obesity — A Matter of Policy. New England of Journal Medicine, 354(24), 2527-2529.

Nestle, M. (2013, May 31). Annals of public relations: the food industry vs.obesity. Retrieved from Food Politics: http://www.foodpolitics.com/2013/05/annals-of-public-relations-the-food-industry-vs-obesity/


[1] Hill, J. (n.d). On the topic of the Hill & Knowlton public relations campaign formulated on behalf of the Tobacco Industry Research Committee. Retrieved from ttlaonline.com: http://www.ttlaonline.com/HKWIS/hksplash.htm

[2] Brownell, K., & Warner, K. (2009). The Perils of Ignoring History: Big Tobacco Played Dirty and Millions Died. How Similar Is Big Food? Millbank Quarterly, 260-294.

[3] McGinnis, J., Gootman, J., & Kraak, V. (2006). Food marketing to children and youth: threat or opportunity? Washington, D.C: National Academic Press.

[4] Nestle, M. (2006). Food Marketing and Childhood Obesity — A Matter of Policy. New England of Journal Medicine, 354(24), 2527-2529.

[5] Messina, A. (2007). Public relations, the public interest and persuasion: an ethical approach. Journal of Communication Management, 11(1), 29 – 52.

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “Public Relations in the Fast Food Industry”

  1. This is something that I’ve struggled with for two reasons. One, according to the BMI, I’m considered obese and deal with society’s perception of individuals in my condition which is largely stigmatic, shaming and blaming. Two, I’m a passionate advocate for population health based approach, which includes improving access to healthy choices and making those the easy choice. Sometimes that is reframing the idea of “treat” or convincing someone that the caloric and snack servings food value of a bag of oranges for $5 is much better than a large bag of chips at the same price point. Big Food Marketing has positioned the chips as the more common choice and I often hear that the oranges are “too expensive.” We struggle with trying to lead the way in health care because we face so much resistance from employees, the community and our suppliers. People want the autonomy and choice. I would prefer a more controlled approach to all the things that create tension to our health and health system…but, I think I’m considered quite radical in those ideas.

    1. Abrar, this is a great post. It points out a problem that is much deeper than it appears. I find the Nestle ad particularly disturbing, although you can see the goal behind the words, because I’ve found that even their bottled water has higher sodium content than many other brands.

      As for what Wendy has posted, I recently worked with one of the NS health authorities where a healthy eating policy was implemented during my time there. Although there was resistance at first, it lead to a lot more creative and healthier food options that many employees and community members enjoyed. With the extremely unhealthy foods gone, and healthy options left, the healthier foods were soon being consumed and (shocker!) everyone liked them. So, I don’t think you’re being radical at all. I think a more controlled approach will lead to having to make healthier choices, and having to try new things, and so on.

  2. There was a time not that long ago when we didn’t have any information about the food we were eating. Labeling allows people to make more informed decisions. Information about the calories, sodium and fat content of McDonald’s food is available, but not printed on the individual item for consumers to easily see. Perhaps the ethical thing to do is to list the information on the individual packages. Transparency is honest and ethical and allows customers to make informed decisions.The information will probably be an eye opener for some consumers, but I suspect for most, it won’t deter them from eating at McDonalds. After all, there are pretty shocking reminders of the risk of smoking on cigarette packages and people continue to smoke.

  3. I agree that the fast food industry has to take some responsibility for their product and the detrimental effects it can have, but so does the consumer. There is a lot of information out there today for the consumer to make smart choices but lets faces it, we are busy, and cooking healthy isn’t always the easiest choice to make. You are correct in saying that the public relations campaign that encourages the public to eat less of their product is failing the client but there are other ways to deal with the negative impact of promoting fast food.
    Recently I have noticed that A&W is promoting hormone free beef and McDonalds has in recent years tried to be more healthy in their approach, offering the consumer a healthy alternative. Companies can also use some of their profits to invest in their communities and be socially responsible. McDonalds has a Global Corporate Sustainability mandate, based on sustainability and philanthropy. It doesn’t make up for the indiscretions of marketing to small kids but it does indicate that they are aware and are trying to give back, which is somewhat hopeful.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s