McDonald’s Black History Month Gambit Can’t Obscure Its Inequitable Practices

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It’s Black History Month and McDonald’s spied a marketing opportunity. Using a campaign called Nuggets of Knowledge, McDonald’s is quizzing consumers on the accomplishments of Black people, extending the dubious grand prize of a year’s supply of Chicken McNuggets.

McDonald’s has a long history of playing up its role with the Black community and claiming to be a socially responsible neighbor. Yet this fast-food giant exemplifies the ways the whole industry targets children and people of color, perpetuates an unsustainable food system, and exploits its low-income workforce.

After all, what kind of good neighbor stalks children with ads for unhealthy foods everywhere they go, following them into their classrooms, crowding their neighborhoods with advertisements, and viral marketing to them through online games? McDonald’s deploys celebrities and athletes of color and borrows liberally from hip-hop culture to market to Black children. It uses websites such as 365black.com, MeEncanta.com, and MyInspirasian.com to target specific racial groups.

Restaurants in majority-Black neighborhoods are almost two times as likely to display Happy Meal toys, and these communities see more ads for price promotions than wealthier, whiter communities. This target marketing of youth of color seems to be working: a University of Connecticut study found that Black and Hispanic youth are 44% and 30% more likely to visit HappyMeal.com.

McDonald’s and other fast-food giants have attempted to disguise that they profit at the expense of customers’ health by joining the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), which sets industry standards for both nutrition and advertising. These standards are lax—and still, only three percent of children’ meals actually meet them. It’s clear that belonging to CFBAI isn’t a serious pledge of social responsibility, just another example of too little, too late.

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As an employer, McDonald’s claims to provide career advancement opportunities to its employees. Citing a few employees who successfully climbed the corporate ladder, McDonald’s glosses over the fact that the majority of its workers don’t even earn living wages. McDonald’s upped its CEO’s compensation by 130% between 2010 and 2014, while its employees only saw their wages increase 0.3% in real dollars, stranding many well below the poverty line.

Far from these low-wage jobs being a “starting point” on the career ladder, a Center for Economic and Policy Research report found that people aged 25-54 held the largest share of fast-food worker jobs in the U.S.  Sixty-eight percent of fast food workers earning between $7.26 and $10.09 an hour are older than 20—not teenagers looking for spending money.

It’s not that McDonald’s can’t afford to pay their employees living wages; it just refuses, preferring to rely on federal aid to sustain its unjust pay structure. When employees asked for financial help, McDonald’s set up a “McResources” hotline that briefed employees on how to apply for federal poverty benefits like food stamps, the Children’s Health Insurance Plan, and Medicaid. More than half of fast-food workers’ families receive some form of public assistance and estimates, from the National Employment Law Project, are that McDonald’s employees alone received $1.2 billion in federal aid annually. When tax dollars are desperately needed to subsidize the paltry wages McDonald’s pays its employees, it’s clear that McDonald’s is not living up to the “good neighbor” status it so proudly proclaims.

McDonald’s can blow its sizeable PR budget trying to convince its customers otherwise, but its corporate actions speak for themselves. While this latest hypocrisy involves Black people and Black history specifically, McDonald’s practices affect all communities of color and those with low income.  By heavily targeting these communities—and children specifically—with advertisements for junk food, and denying most employees a living wage, McDonald’s shows it’s not looking out for anyone but itself. We’re not lovin’ it.

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