Health beyond the horizon

Marketing fast food as “Australian”: not a fair go

Fast food is marketed as exciting and family-friendly, it’s marketed using bright colours and catchy names, it’s even marketed alongside sporting events including our national sports and the Olympics.

But the latest perverse move by a fast-food giant is to advertise its calorie-dense, nutrient-poor “meals” as “Australian”.

McDonald’s Australia Day Range.

How is fast food “Australian”?

Australia, along with much of the world, is in the midst of an obesity crisis. Almost two in three Australians are either overweight or obese and disease-related costs threaten to cripple our health system.

This is not a problem of laziness or poor choice on the part of individuals, as is commonly touted. The obesity epidemic is an outcome of an increasingly ubiquitous access to poor quality, calorie-dense foods; a food system in which the most unhealthy foods are those most affordable; a lack of quality education around food, food production and diet; and importantly, pervasive advertising by some within the food industry – especially fast-food companies.

This recently launched advertisement from a certain red and yellow fast food chain takes the last tactic to a new level. In time for Australia Day, this chain has launched a special “Australian” menu and, with it, a set of advertisements oozing patriotism and cliches.

Young men in singlets, utes that are “chockers” and faces painted with Australian flags sitting down to burgers. Mothers and their children enjoy a morning stop for fast food and characters such as “Gazza” are introduced in rhyming verse by the ocker voice-over. The ad even includes an adolescent sporting team laughing and having fun as Waltzing Matilda plays in the background.

And, of course, the actors are a bevvy of healthy, slim, young, happy Australians.

When did it become acceptable to market food rich in fat and poor in substance as “Australian” - using children, iconic Aussie symbols and even our flag? When did we hand over the carte blanche for the Golden Arches to use our national identity to serve us more burgers and fries? And if they are really wanting to make a truly Australian ad, why are two in three of the people portrayed laughing, skipping and dancing at their “restaurants” not obese or overweight?

Two things stand out in particular as completely inappropriate.

The first, is the use of Australia Day to sell something that contributes to one of the greatest health threats facing our nation. Using our age-old icons, our pride and our day to sell burgers for a global multinational in a nation where obesity costs $21 billion per year is appalling.

In my view, fast food is not, and should not be portrayed as being Australian. The fact that this is allowed on television is either a gross failure on the part of our regulatory authorities or a reflection of their inadequate powers. Either way, a very shameful example of the perverse tactics used by the fast-food industry.

The second element of this commercial that makes me very disappointed - both as an Australian taxpayer and as a doctor - is the use of uniformed policewomen and paramedics in the advertisement. Finishing their “all-night shift”, the paramedics (albeit actors) come to have their morning fast-food fix. The very paramedics who probably spent the evening attending to heart-attack or stroke patients - diseases in part caused by a diet high in fat and salt.

But apart from the fact that these two professions are meant to serve and protect our community and not sell ice-cream and cola for a global corporation, Australians pay for these incredibly valuable public servants and community leaders through taxation. The integrity and respect of whom should be protected. So to have them portrayed on a commercial selling something that not only contributes to national disease but also profits a fast-food corporation, is deeply unsettling.

Using our national identity to sell fast food

This insulting and inappropriate television commercial, pulling on the nationalistic heart-strings of well-intentioned Australians, is a sad reflection of present-day advertising techniques from an insidious yet ubiquitous industry. I predict one day we will look back with disgust at such ads in the same way we look back at smoking ads from the 1950s now. The problem is, by then, the damage will be done.

Fast food is not Australian, and advertising it as such should not be acceptable. These under-handed advertising tactics, associating high-fat, nutrient-poor foods with family time, friends, sports and our valued public services provide families and especially children with anything but an Aussie “fair go” at achieving and maintaining health.

Australia Day, a day of pride, unity and multicultural celebration, should be protected from hijacking by multinationals for commercial gains. Least of all, by industries that profit from the current crisis of obesity – contributing to unprecedented rates of heart disease, cancers and diabetes facing the Australian community.

Come on Aussies.. Seriously, come on!


For more on global health, explore Translational Global Health, from Alessandro and PLoS.