I’m Not Lovin’ It: The Distasteful Story of How Global Fast Food Marketing is Duping Consumers and Perpetuating the Obesity Epidemic

The ubiquity of American products abroad is hardly surprising. From Ray Bans to Nikes to Chevys, the marketplace today is truly global and interconnected. But one American export may prove to be less fashionable than these aforementioned products: obesity. Fast food establishments have been popping up around the world at an unprecedented rate, selling their meals and experiencing record profits while quietly afflicting increasingly large populations with these short-term indulgences’ long-term consequences. But this shouldn’t come as a surprise: After all, the glamorous nature of fast-food and soda marketing in developing countries targets and galvanizes consumers, fueling the global obesity epidemic. Fast food corporations have taken advantage of a largely unregulated system to stuff their wallets while jeopardizing the health of billions. Free enterprise purists may argue that the market will eventually correct itself to favor healthier alternatives, but the invisible hand doesn’t care about its waistline or BMI, nor will it ever. It’s time we intensely regulate the way our fast food and soda are marketed by borrowing from the system employed by another popular vice: cigarettes.

According to the Harvard School of Public Health, for the first time in history, the world now contains more overweight than underweight individuals. This begs the question: Why? In a world where all other resources are dwindling — water, clean air, oil — how do our stomachs get more full than ever before? Alas, malnutrition has many faces: That of traditional starvation as well as a new variety that consists of consuming more than enough total calories but lacks vital nutrients. These “empty” calories lack the nutritional value essential to perform bodily and developmental functions. Heart disease the risk factors for which correlate strongly with obesity is on the rise as one of the world’s top non-communicable killers.

Providing a structure favorable to global corporate dominance while also explaining fast food’s greater marketability, globalization functions as the facilitating mechanism through which the increasing prevalence of obesity has been achieved. This trend encompasses an unquantifiable amount of changes that result from the world’s growing interconnectedness. They manifest themselves in lifestyle: a new job, perhaps more than one job, a more hectic work week, more traffic, a longer commute — and of course, the convenience of fast food in a world where those who work long hours to make a living barely have time to cook. In such an on-the-go setting, the growing appeal of fast food and sodas, typically linked to obesity, is clear. The changes in lifestyle and, in turn, choice of food, are both results of globalization, which, at its core, is an economic phenomenon. As American fast food chains have spread around the world, they have directed their marketing to their new audiences to turn a profit.

This marketing is arguably the most significant link between globalization and the spread of obesity through fast food and sodas exists. We have been conditioned to view the world as juxtaposed: The “rich North” bathes in resources while the “global South” suffers and starves. Advertisers have exploited this perceived link between the West and prosperity in the eyes of consumers to brand fast food and soda products as routes to a “better life”.

Just as nineteenth-century immigrants were deluded into believing the streets of the United States were “paved with gold,” so too do modern advertisers take advantage of a skewed perception of American wealth and prosperity to market their unhealthy products, now rebranded as gateways to ‘freedom’ and the “American dream.” McDonald’s “Golden Arches” thus take on new meaning: The gourmand equivalent of the St. Louis Gateway Arch, perhaps? Fast food and sodas are displayed by sellers as pathways to modernity. Consumers in turn harness this image to both create an external and internal illusion of higher status. In the developing world, it is not uncommon for eating at a fast food joint to be considered a symbol of “luxury,” especially when the only alternative is attempting to cook in a home that lacks an adequate kitchen or needing to walk long distances for drinkable water, an unfortunately prevalent phenomenon in poor South African townships.  

When this appeal is established, turning back is difficult. An inexpensive, convenient meal that appears to be a path to prosperity seems too good to be true. And it is, until the weight gain catches on and the reality sinks in. In China, for example, dining at McDonald’s is considered “fashionable” — a markedly different adjective than those used to describe this chain in the United States. Chinese consumers have also raved about the clean aesthetics and business model of KFC, making it the most beloved foreign brand in the country. In Kuwait, the opening of a drive-through McDonald’s triggered a seven-mile long queue of cars.

The case of Kuwait is interesting, as it represents an increasingly prosperous consumer base that has seen its exposure to the “West” grow with its well-being. Fast food advertising has displayed images of people wearing jeans, driving sports cars, and appearing slightly more promiscuous and liberal than the accepted customs of the country in which the ad is publicized, presenting the given dining establishment as synonymous with a ‘Western’ lifestyle and overall ‘Western’ aesthetic. Regardless, this advertising is able to strike a balance and compromise with the host culture by making certain adaptations, such as focusing heavily on halal meat in the Middle East. Advertisers also focus extensively on branding fast food establishments as sleek and clean, attempting to present healthfully destructive foods as their antithesis due to clean interiors and restaurant facades. Fast food, it appears, is a cheap, socially safe and sound way by which to be inducted into the growing trend of Westernism and participate in what seems to be a global movement.

The invisible hand doesn’t care about its waistline or BMI, nor will it ever. It’s time we intensely regulate the way our fast-food and soda are marketed by borrowing from the system employed by another popular vice: cigarettes

The problem of manipulative marketing is a self-perpetuating cycle of successful directed marketing that leads to higher consumption of fast food and sodas, which in turn leads to higher levels of obesity. By 2019, the global fast food market is expected to have a value of $617.6 billion. Fast-food chains claim that their entrance into developing markets was triggered by reaching a so-called “saturation point” within Western markets. Companies define this point as the moment when 60 percent of a nation’s diet is made up of processed food (reached long ago in the US, Canada, and the United Kingdom). However, one author claims that firms are confronting less of a “saturated market” and more of an “educated market” in the West. McDonald’s, for example, experienced four consecutive years of dropping consumer counts at its US restaurants. To the leaders of the company, this was a wake-up call and a signal to expand elsewhere in order to keep its fast food empire alive and thriving. As such, the capitalist hunger for profit has led to a dangerously effective ad campaign that is essentially neocolonialist: taking advantage of the vulnerabilities of developing nations to exert indirect dominance and control over populations for corporate gain. Now, McDonald’s is earning over $6 million per day in the Middle East, and only expects these numbers to grow alongside an intensive plan the company has created to increase these figures by 60 percent by 2020. The Gulf States’ sharp increase in such non-communicable killers — as well as, interestingly enough, bariatric surgeons to perform stomach stapling operations — is no doubt related to the influx of fast food restaurants in the countries in recent years.

But this marketing success story must be regulated. It takes advantage of false promises to dupe consumers into making decisions that threaten their health. For decades, tobacco and cigarette marketing embellished the practice of smoking and established it as a “cool” activity until certain countries began to regulate the advertising thereof due to its serious negative health consequences. Though there is no uniform set of standards regarding worldwide cigarette advertising, most nations have taken significant steps to regulate it since the mid-20th century. In the US, the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1966 required the product labels that state that smoking is dangerous to one’s health and banned tobacco advertising on television and radio. In 2009, the FDA was granted the authority to regulate tobacco products through the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009.

Around the world, while the severity of regulations differs, their implementation has indisputably made a difference. In Turkey, for example, tobacco usage decreased 13 percent (1.2 million fewer smokers) between 2008 and 2013 due to a complete ban on advertising in any form. Similar regulations regarding fast food, soda, and other food and drink related to obesity could be enormously effective — and they are just as necessary. In fact, a study done by the World Health Organization has concluded that, at this point in time, government regulation of the fast food market remains the only mechanism by which the global obesity epidemic can be impeded. The Affordable Care Act in 2010 took a step in the right direction by mandating calorie labeling of foods sold in vending machines, amusement parks, and select dining establishments in an attempt to promote consumer awareness. WHO has suggested providing monetary incentives for “healthy” producers and vendors and the opposite for “unhealthy” corporations, but subsidies do not suffice. More needs to be done, and the power of advertising needs to be harnessed to do so.

Of the four so-called “common killers” in the world — heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and lung disease — a whopping 48 percent were a result of heart disease and three percent of diabetes, meaning that obesity-related illnesses or illnesses whose risk factors increase greatly with obesity are responsible for over half of the world’s deaths from noncommunicable diseases. Lung disease and cancer, by contrast, though still obviously significant, together comprise a comparatively low 33 percent (12 percent and 21 percent, respectively). Thus, if the health risks associated with smoking warrant intense regulation, it goes without question that similar standards ought to be applied to fast food and soda, which have proven to be at least just as threatening. Even more frightening is the inevitable augmentation of this threat if nothing is done. As more and more fast food chains keep cropping up around the world, increasing numbers of people will be swept up by their charm: geographical proximity to such joints has proven to be a telling factor that increases the likelihood of obesity. The South African Minister of Health, Dr. Aaron Motsoaledi, who is advocating for regulations in his country to eliminate trans fats and reduce salts in foods, likens the obesity epidemic to climate change: We all know it’s slowly killing us, but politicians keep kicking the can when it comes to crafting effective solutions.

Once again, we find ourselves in a classic economic debate with competing arguments regarding the scope of government. But, if a market is truly free, it must also take responsibility for its actions. And contributing substantially to a global health epidemic is a serious liability. Surely a reasonable deal of regulation, labeling, and consumer awareness won’t harm corporations to the extent that their organizations become irrelevant, but even so, what’s more important here: global health or corporate profit?

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