Behind the Label: McDonald’s See What We’re Made Of Campaign

Do we really want to see what McDonald’s is made of?

As the world’s largest hamburger fast food chain by sales, McDonald’s serves around 68 million customers per day in 119 countries. Founded in 1955 by Dick and Mac McDonald, and later run by legendary businessman Ray Kroc, McDonald’s is the best known franchise in the world, with golden arches spotted from Lebanon to the Louvre.

McDonald’s history of controversies and lawsuits is nearly as old as the company itself. Since its founding, McDonald’s has come under fire for everything from environment to health to labor practices, inspiring terminology like McJob (a low-paying job that requires little skill and provides little opportunity for advancement) and critical food industry documentaries like Super Size Me. What else would you expect from a restaurant founded upon and organized around factory assembly line principles?

McDonald’s latest marketing campaign addresses the quality of their ingredients, and more specifically, the people behind those ingredients. Under the headline “See What We’re Made Of,” the campaign, created by Omnicom DDB, is heavy on video, with feel-good “Supplier Stories” from potato, lettuce, and beef growers, as well as informative looks “Inside Our Kitchens” to see how staples like the Big Mac and Egg McMuffin are made.

“We thought putting a face on the quality of the food story would be a unique way to approach this,” McDonald’s U.S. Chief Marketing Officer Neil Golden told AdAge. “We acknowledge that there are questions about where our food comes from. I believe we’ve got an opportunity to accentuate that part of our story.”

But how much of the story is real, and how much is just marketing? Let’s look at some of the facts.

The Good

While McDonald’s certainly isn’t the poster child for corporate social responsibility, the company has taken a number of steps toward greater transparency and more sustainable business practices in recent years. Nutritional information and ingredient lists for most of their standard menu items are available online, as well as answers to frequently asked questions like “What do you feed the cows that the beef comes from?” (answer: mostly corn). In 2008, McDonald’s opened a pilot LEED-certified “green” location in Chicago, with energy efficient equipment and lighting, high efficiency plumbing, and permeable pavement and rainwater collection for irrigation. They followed up with a North Carolina location in 2010 and a LEED-driven sustainable overhaul of their Global Headquarters. McDonald’s has also tackled packaging, cooking oil reuse, and customer awareness campaigns.

With this particular campaign, it looks like McDonald’s aim is to tap into the fresh/organic/locavore movement by presenting its ingredients as fresh and its farming partners as real people, just like you and me. The farmers chosen for “Supplier Stories” are secondary sources, contracted through McDonald’s suppliers, and they represent a cross-section of backgrounds and locations.

The Bad

McDonald’s has long been criticized for working with large-scale suppliers who have questionable environmental and animal welfare policies. Just in November, ABC News revealed that Sparboe Farms, which supplied the majority of eggs used in McDonald’s popular Egg McMuffin breakfast sandwiches, was guilty of horrific violations related to animal cruelty and hygiene. Soon after, McDonald’s ended the supplier relationship, and Sparboe vowed to “do better.”

But McDonald’s has yet to take action in response to PETA’s recent “McCruelty: I’m Hatin’ It” campaign, which calls the corporation out on inhumane treatment of chickens by their suppliers.

Says PETA: “Chickens who are raised for McDonald’s are killed using an old-fashioned method that causes millions of birds to have their wings broken and many to be scalded to death in defeathering tanks. A less cruel slaughter method—and one that is already used by McDonald’s European suppliers—is available, but the company refuses to require its U.S. suppliers to upgrade to it.”

And those are only recent scandals in a long list of controversies.

The Questionable

“Supplier Stories” presents a romantic view of American agriculture, with soft lighting, panoramic shots, acoustic background music, and farmers who emphasize the values of hard work and perseverance. In the world depicted in these videos, conventional factory farming isn’t a practice that’s harmful to the environment; it’s the American dream. The feel-good nature of the campaign glazes over many of the issues involved in McDonald’s supplier relationships, like the pesticide and migrant worker issues in the Salinas Valley where lettuce producer Dirk Giannini farms.

Plus, while the base ingredients in McDonald’s meals may come from the fairytale farms depicted in the videos, what happens to them after they hit a McDonald’s kitchen cancels out all the purported purity. McDonald’s famous french fries, for instance, contain much more than just home-grown potatoes:

Potatoes, vegetable oil (canola oil, hydrogenated soybean oil, natural beef flavor [wheat and milk derivatives]*, citric acid [preservative]), dextrose, sodium acid pyrophosphate (maintain color), salt. Prepared in vegetable oil (Canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil, hydrogenated soybean oil with TBHQ and citric acid added to preserve freshness). Dimethylpolysiloxane added as an antifoaming agent. CONTAINS: WHEAT AND MILK. *(Natural beef flavor contains hydrolyzed wheat and hydrolyzed milk as starting ingredients).

For McDonald’s to highlight the stories of the people behind their products is a step in the right direction. However, McDonald’s has yet to address in a significant way how its factory farm suppliers are harming the world they so romanticize.

Jessica Marati

Jessica Marati currently resides in New York City and covers travel and sustainability for EcoSalon. Catch her weekly column, Behind the Label.