SQUALL McLibel Special: McMammon vs Human Health
The Motives Behind The Mask
Ladies and gentlemen of the wider jury, the evidence on diet and deception.
Squall 11, Autumn 1995, p.45
In one of ‘The Omen’ films, Damien - the devil’s child - manoeuvres his way into a political position as controller of youth education. The symbolic implications of the movie are obvious - children are the future and children are vulnerable to manipulation. Thus, of course, they exist as innocent fodder for Damien’s not so grand designs.
As David Green, Senior Vice President of McDonald’s Marketing, said in court: "[children are] virgin ground as far as marketing is concerned."
Indeed, one clandestine look at the official and confidential ‘McDonald’s Operation Manual’ confirms the Corporation’s intention to fully capitalise on what in the advertising industry is known as "pester power":
"Children are often the key decision-makers concerning where a family goes to eat... [Offering toys] is one of the best things.... to make them loyal supporters", using McDonald’s birthday parties as "an important way to generate added sales and profits" and Ronald McDonald as "a strong marketing tool".
The Operations Manual goes on to explain: "Ronald loves McDonald’s and McDonald’s food. And so do children, because they love Ronald. Remember, children exert a phenomenal influence when it comes to restaurant selection, This means you should do everything you can to appeal to children’s love for Ronald and McDonald’s."
The manipulation of love? Damien would be proud.
Under cross examination from the McLibel defendants, John Hawkes, McDonald’s UK Chief Marketing Officer, stated that whenever opening an outlet in a new country or region, McDonald’s first advertises itself to children: "One of the tactics is to reach families through children" and that by teaching them McDonald’s songs it "would keep the memory of McDonald’s at the forefront of their minds so they can again ask their parents if they can come to McDonald’s."
Children are virgin ground as far as marketing is concerned.
Hawkes further admitted that McDonald’s advertising campaigns were often specifically directed at 2 to 8 year olds, saying that between the ages of 8 and 15 "they do not pester their parents to go to McDonald’s. It does not work in the same way".
An important thing to bear in mind when reading these quotes is that the psychological manipulation of children is one of the accusations levelled at McDonald’s in the critical ‘Factsheet’ central to the libel suit.
Paul Preston, McDonald’s UK President claimed in court that the character of Ronald McDonald was intended not to "sell food" to children but to promote the "McDonald’s experience". Ronald McDonald, he claimed, is "a spokesman to children".
McDonald’s primary medium of advertising is television, and yet the Independent Television Commission (ITC) advertising code expressly forbids advertising that "manipulates the emotions" of children. However, few observers of televisual advertising will argue that commercials come anywhere near adhering to these codes of practice. Their effectiveness as a regulatory control on unethical advertising is viewed as laughable both inside and outside the advertising industry. Indeed, directly contrary to the code of practice was a UK seminar held last year for members of the advertising industry entitled "Pester Power - How to reach children in 1994".
Sue Dibb, commissioned by the National Food Alliance to research the effects of food advertising on children, attended the seminar and also gave evidence in the McLibel trial. In her view "the cumulative effect of much food advertising does result in harm to children, in the sense that it encourages inappropriate nutritional practices which will have implications for children’s health and their health in later life."
The targeting of children by the McDonald’s Corporation was further highlighted by the resignation of Geoffrey Guiliano, the actor who had played the Ronald McDonald clown in the eighties. He issued a statement, read out during the McLibel trial, saying: "I brainwashed youngsters into doing wrong. I want to say sorry to children everywhere."
Embarrassment? This was just the tip of the iceberg.
For having captured the "customers’ minds", the quality of the food product actually sold to people ‘under the influence’ is crucial to the trial. The allegedly libellous ‘Factsheet’ claimed a connection between a diet of the kind of junk food sold at McDonald’s and a multitude of degenerative diseases including cancer. McDonald’s obviously took exception to these suggestions, citing it as one of the major issues of the libel case.
However, the Corporation’s stance looked decidedly shaky when one of its own witnesses appeared in court. Dr Sydney Arnott, an expert in cancer, was asked under cross examination what he thought of the following statement:
"A diet high in fat, sugar, animal products and salt and low in fibre, vitamins and minerals is linked with cancers of the breast and bowel, and heart disease."
Dr Arnott replied: "If it is being directed to the public then I would say it is a very reasonable thing to say."
The court was then informed that the statement had come directly from the leaflet over which McDonald’s was suing. During the pre-trial hearings, McDonald’s legal representative, Richard Rampton QC, had cited this section as the most "defamatory" in the leaflet, saying that if proven, it would be the "kiss of death" to a company like McDonald’s. Now, however, the Corporation’s own witness finds the statement "reasonable".
Another scientist brought in by McDonald’s, Professor Verner Wheelock, didn’t help their case much either when he stood by a statement he had written previously: "We have now reached the point where we can be very confident that diet is the primary factor in the development of most of the degenerative diseases in many industrialised countries." He also said it was "not sensible" to encourage the eating of foods high in fat, sugar and salt and low in fibre.
"I brainwashed youngsters into doing wrong. I want to say sorry to children everywhere."
When Dr Neal Barnard, President of the US Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine, took the witness stand the links between a McDonald’s junk food diet and ill health were further established:
"Many of the products sold at McDonald’s are high in fat and cholesterol and low in fibre and certain vitamins," and as a result "contribute to heart disease, certain forms of cancer and other diseases."
And yet in the nutrition guides given out at McDonald’s outlets, it is claimed that "every time you eat McDonald’s, you’ll eat good, nutritious food". Once again, evidence suggests that this was a marketing strategy, specifically designed to counter a growing public concern over the quality of McDonald’s food. In 1987, McDonald’s own internal magazine announced a new wave of advertising "to neutralise the junk food misconception about McDonald’s good food". When Stephen Gardner, former Assistant Attorney General of Texas, appeared in the witness box, he informed the court of US state reprimands to McDonald’s over the deceptiveness of its advertising.
McDonald’s concept of a balanced diet is "meaningless". He told the court that using such a definition: "You could eat a roll of sellotape as part of a balanced diet."
In a joint letter sent to the Corporation, three American State Attorney Generals registered a complaint that was unusually overt for those in such high-level legal positions. It read:
"The Attorney Generals of Texas, California and New York have concluded our joint review of McDonald's recent advertising campaign which claims that McDonald's food is nutritious. Our mutual conclusion is that this advertising campaign is deceptive. We therefore request that McDonald’s immediately desist further use of this advertising campaign. The reason for this is simple: McDonald’s food is, as a whole, not nutritious. The intent and result of the current campaign is to deceive customers into believing the opposite. Fast- food customers often choose to go to McDonald’s because it is inexpensive and convenient. They should not be fooled into eating there because you have told them it is also nutritious. The new campaign appears intended to pull the wool over the public’s eyes."
The McLibel defendants forced McDonald’s to disclose as court evidence, an internal company memo from a high level meeting in March 1986. The memo revealed quite clearly how McDonald’s respond to prevailing negative imagery: "McDonald’s should attempt to deflect the basic negative thrust of our critics.… How do we do this? By talking 'moderation and balance'. We can't really address or defend nutrition. We don't sell nutrition and people don't come to McDonald's for nutrition."
However, despite these private admissions, the thrust of McDonald’s publicity still continues to reinforce the impression of healthy eating.
The ‘nutrition’ guide given out in its burger outlets states: "Quality is very important to us. We will only serve our customers food of the highest standards of quality, nutrition, hygiene and food safety.... To help our customers eat a healthy diet we are constantly making our menu even more nutritious."
Under cross examination from the defendants, Edward Oakley, Senior Vice President of McDonald’s UK, proclaimed that ‘nutritious’ meant "foods that contained nutrients". When asked whether this included coca-cola, he said: "Coca-cola has a good source of energy, no question about that. It can be nutritious."
When his colleague, David Green, Senior Vice President of Marketing, was asked the same thing, he said that coca-cola "provided water and I think that is part of a balanced diet."
Sir Bernard Ingham, Knight of the Realm, ex press secretary to Margaret Thatcher and a non-executive Director of McDonald’s UK since 1991.
In his regular column for PR Week, Sir Bernard described the petrochemical company Shell as "contemptable" for failing to dump the Brent Spar oil platform. He described the decision as "utter capitulation to the anti-commercial forces of eco-terrorism". Presumably then, Sir Bernard wasn’t informed of the arrival in London of three McDonald’s Corporation Directors. Thy had flown over from the US to offer the McLibel two a payment to a third party if they would agree to allow the Corporation to back out of their increasingly embarrassing battle with ‘the anti-commercial force of two eco-activists’.
Shell’s new PR team, the old one was sacked after the Brent Spar debacle, must be chuckling at their drawing boards.
The McDonald’s ‘nutrition’ guide further states: "At McDonald’s we have a responsibility to help our customers eat a healthy balanced diet.... McDonald’s meal combinations can form part of your balanced diet."
According to Tim Lobstein, co-director of the Food Commission, McDonald’s concept of a balanced diet is "meaningless". He told the court that using such a definition: "You could eat a roll of sellotape as part of a balanced diet."
As a result of this torrent of adverse evidence, McDonald’s was forced to rethink its court strategy, consequently changing its Statement of Claim (the basis of the libel action). Previously the Corporation had complained about the ‘unsubstantiated’ link made between a junk food diet and ill health. With the weight of evidence mounting against this position, they changed their complaint, so trying to force the defendants to prove the statement (not found in the ‘Factsheet’) that "McDonald’s sell meals which cause cancer of the breast and bowel, and heart disease in their customers".
The judge dismissed objections from the two defendants, who argued that changing the accusations levelled against them would be unjust to the preparation of their defence, particularly in the light of the fact that most of the evidence on nutrition had already been heard by that stage of the trial.
However, despite McDonald’s efforts to salvage a legal point from the damning witnesses, the evidence kept coming.
Dr Neal Barnard, President of the US Physicians’ for Responsible Medicine, quoted a statement made by a Dr William Castelli, director of a major US study into cancer. It read: "When you see the Golden Arches, you’re probably on the way to the Pearly Gates."
It is easy to see why McDonald’s were keen not to have a jury for this libel case. They successfully applied to have a non-jury trial on the basis that a jury would not understand the scientific evidence. However, far from being scientifically complex, the expert witnesses appearing on behalf of both the defendants and the plaintiff, have confirmed the links between a junk food diet and degenerative disease in overt and easily intelligible ways. The evidence coming out of court 35 is certainly not beyond the capacity of a jury to understand, a fact reflected in the media coverage given to the trial. The media require digestible versions of events, and the overt statements being made in the McLibel witness stand have been providing just that.
"When you see the golden arches, you’re probably on your way to the pearly gates."
Indeed McDonald’s concern over the escalating public relations damage caused by the trial has led to their recent decision to withhold the official court transcripts from the defendants.
McDonald’s pay £700 a day for a typed- up copy of each day’s proceedings. As part of an agreement made on the eve of the trial, they have up until now passed over a copy to both the defendants and the judge at the end of each day.
Richard Rampton QC made no bones about why McDonald’s wanted to break the agreement, saying: "What it would prevent, and this is what this is all about, is their disseminating [extracts from the transcript] to journalists and the McLibel Support Campaign and similar like-minded [people]". There was some court consternation when Rampton went on to talk about the longhand note-taking that the defendants would have to do as a result of not having the transcripts. He said: "It is hard work of course, and I know that in some senses the defendants are resistant to that". This slighting comment is rendered more audacious when considered alongside the fact that Rampton, who earns £2,000 a day, has people hired to carry his bags and files into court. The McLibel Two, on the other hand, earn nothing for their stance, literally carrying the weight of the entire case on their shoulders. The judge said that if the defendants were not to be given the court transcripts then he should not have them either.
As there is no jury in courtroom 35, the McLibel Two consider it important that the evidence uncovered by the trial should be considered by a wider jury, in the form of the general public. Despite being unwaged, and despite their disqualification from legal aid, the McLibel defendants are now required to find the £350-a-day required to pay for the transcripts, essential to both their ability to conduct their case and to the presentation of the significant spoken evidence to the widest possible jury.
The McLibel Support Campaign say they have every intention of raising the money necessary to buy the court transcripts.
The sheer quantity of expert evidence adverse to McDonald’s position has undoubtedly induced a rare unease in the usually triumphant Corporation halls. Withholding the transcripts is just one of a number of manoeuvres reflective of a growing nervousness.
In August 1994, members of the McDonald’s US Board of Directors set up a meeting with the McLibel defendants and offered to pay an undisclosed sum of money to a "mutually agreed third party" if they would only cease in their criticisms of the Corporation. The defendants refused. In June of this year, McDonald’s US executives again flew over to meet the defendants and once again the defendants refused their request to curtail the trial. Instead the McLibel Two publicly issued their own pre-conditions. These included an apology from McDonald’s and a commitment never again to sue any individual or organisation over criticisms similar to those in the ‘London Greenpeace Factsheet’.
It is small wonder that McDonald’s are keen to find a way out of the mess.
Profit and sales depend on an image and reputation manicured through advertising. Public embarrassment initiates the potential for financial disaster.
McDonald’s can still consider themselves very successful with their intention to capture the "customer’s mind", the customer’s children and the customer’s money. Indeed it is likely that the publicity from the trial has yet to have had any major effect on global sales.
But, with more and more adverse evidence slipping out of courtroom 35 and into the public domain, the potential for serious commercial damage increases with each new revelation. The Achilles’ heel of one of the most blatant symbols of global mammon gets sorer with each new day in court.
"We obviously think there is no foundation in the things that are being said," says Mike Love, McDonald’s UK Director of Communications. "We believe that those taking part in the action should look at the facts and be aware of the truth."
As the newly appointed jury, what say you?
McMAMMON SPECIAL - series of six articles exploring the McLibel trial and the mighty stance taken by two activists who refused to back down - Squall 11 - Autumn 1995
STILL GETTING GRILLED - anti-McDonald's campaigns across the world are attracting more popular support than ever - Nov-1999
CORPORATE COPS - Investigation into relationship between McDonalds and the British Police - 2000
A PROPER GRILLING - The McLibel trial and the legal aftermath reaches its climax at the end of 2004 - 12-Dec-2004