Full of Themselves

Five courses, 2,300 calories, 125 grams of fat. It was quite a lunch that McDonald’s served journalists at the recent media day at the company’s Oak Brook, Ill., headquarters.

We started with one of the new salads. Then a Big Mac (they’ve gone back to the original secret sauce), small fries and a Fillet of Fish (the bun is now steamed, not toasted). On our way out, we were offered a yogurt parfait.

To be fair, they warned us that lunch would be big and encouraged us not to finish it all. But the irony was not lost on me that our next briefing centered around the company’s efforts at health innovation and social responsibility. Maybe they thought our caloric stupor would keep us from asking the tough questions.

I tried. I really did. I asked how much of McDonald’s battle to promote healthy lifestyles needs to be waged on the public-relations front. Whether the chain needs to distance itself from terms it invented that are now being used to describe the country’s obesity epidemic (i.e., the supersizing of America). Whether the company’s signature product, the Big Mac, is a liability, considering that it is regarded as the gold standard of unhealthy food.

Unfortunately, I was too stuffed to write down the answers.

In his opening question-and-answer session with reporters (who were busy wolfing down the new McGriddles sandwiches—420-550 calories each), CEO James Cantalupo declared the attacks on McDonald’s unfair. “We’ve been into nutrition eduction for 30 years,” he said. “This is not something new.”

New or not, the battle is turning into a dogfight. With litigious anti-obesity crusaders circling and judges not exactly on McDonald’s side (one referred to Chicken McNuggetts as “McFrankenstein” food), the chain must do something to defend itself in the court of public opinion. The problem is, it has already lost.

Not that it hasn’t tried to be good. At the sleepy social-responsibility session, company executives steadfastly described McDonald’s as a good corporate citizen. They’ve set up the Ronald McDonald House for families of sick children. They’ve sponsored little league baseball and football programs. An entire wing of Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago is named after McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc. Hell, they’ve even named Ronald McDonald chief happiness officer.

But they could have driven me around in a hydrogen-powered car and handed me press releases on reams of recycled paper, and I still would have ended up focusing on that lunch. Because it was over-the-top. Because it was unnecessary. Because it was exactly what McDonald’s has become known for: excess and indulgence.

In the past few months, much has been made of the company’s efforts to refocus on its core menu items and increase the number of repeat customers. But such a strategy would seem to fly in the face of healthier-lifestyle initiatives. Man can’t live on Big Macs alone (that’s what Subway sandwiches are for), but a quick review of the McDonald’s Web site shows that the new salads put the signature sandwich to shame, calorie-wise.

McD’s executives know their junk food’s appeal. When one of my colleagues asked whether McDonald’s would add carrots to the menu as an alternative to french fries, Cantalupo replied: “Our customers want McDonald’s french fries.” Stated more simply: no.

Going home that day, it was hard for me to reconcile the anger and defensiveness McDonald’s executives displayed over the issue of lawsuits with the lunch they served. If they remain unwilling to see that too much is more than enough, aren’t they at least somewhat complicit in the obesity crisis?

Far be it from me to disagree with McDonald’s management (and most Adweek readers, judging from a recent online poll), but shouldn’t good corporate citizenship entail accepting some responsibility? Because while it’s true that I didn’t have to eat the entire 2,300-calorie lunch, McDonald’s didn’t have to serve it to me, either.