Over the years trusted icons have made it into television commercials to give companies and their products credibility. In coffee commercials during the pre-barista days, mothers would advise their daughters how to make a cup of coffee. Dad types like Mike O’Malley remind us about the virtues of cable companies or doing DIY projects thanks to stores like Home Depot or Lowe’s. And a chihuahua can win affection for a taco chain.
McDonald’s will soon roll out a new ad campaign that will feature the sage and long time American icon, the farmer. Starting January 2, the world’s largest restaurant chain will occasionally air commercials featuring a couple potato farmers, a lettuce grower and a rancher. So far a teaser is out and shows Frank Martinez, a potato farmer in Washington state. It makes for a great sound bite (literally, as Mr. Martinez chomps into a raw potato; no word if that means McDonald’s will offer a raw vegan menu.).
Whether the ad campaign creates excitement outside of the offices of McDonald’s, its ad agency and public relations representatives is debatable. As several other news outlets have pointed out, McDonald’s buys directly from suppliers including the Idaho potato giant Simplot, Cargill and Lamb Weston. Most likely, McDonald’s franchise owners are not driving their trucks to eastern Washington to load up on potatoes to make fresh batches of fries.
This homey ad campaign will hardly mollify critics of the company’s business practices, but it is a timely response to consumers’ current concerns. More consumers want to know where their food is from, how it is grown and whether it is safe. Images of stacks of potatoes, rows of lettuce growing at farms and close ups of inquisitive steer all impart messages of trust. Whether commercials showing the conditions of egg-laying hens, corn rendered into fructose syrup or pigs that end up in an Egg McMuffin remain to be seen. What is certain is that companies are past proving they are “green” and now want to demonstrate that they are “local.”
In fairness companies are replying to external pressures. McDonald’s and other chains are dumping wayward egg suppliers. Relatively healthy options like apple slices and salads are appearing on menus. In Europe, McDonald’s is promising to source fish caught and processed sustainably. Furthermore, conventional agriculture can be responsible and sustainable–the knee-jerk reaction that “organic” is always better is not always the case.
But if transparency and disclosure are fueling this new marketing tactic, we really need to see more than just a bite taken out of a potato. How are those tomatoes churned into ketchup, what goes into milking a cow at a factory farm and how do those orchard apples end up in those funky pies? Because a lot happens to our food from the bucolic farms at which they are sourced to when they finally end up on our plate or in a wrapper. All those steps along the supply chain are what we really need to see.