The Olympic Games. Two weeks, every four years, when we all set aside our national differences and unite around sports. Billions around the globe tune in to see athletes performing at the absolute pinnacle of human ability.
Most Olympians follow strict diets to remain in peak shape—which is why it’s always been puzzling that several of the Games’ top sponsors, both worldwide and domestically, are junk food companies. Coca-Cola. Subway. Nestlé. Kellogg’s. The list goes on.
McDonald’s, for its part, has an exclusive contract on food sold within Olympic Village, which apparently is just fine with the athletes themselves. On TV, commercials for the Golden Arches come on every other spot, it seems.
Quadrennial viewers of the Olympics have grown quite accustomed to the world's largest food companies endlessly hawking their junk between heats of swimming or track and field. If you’ve been watching this year, though, you’ve no doubt noticed the ads feel ... different.
For instance, after going with a more athlete-driven marketing the last several Games, McDonald's lead ad for Rio takes a much more homespun approach: citing its desire to make "simpler food," contending that the company is listening to moms who want more nutritious fast food, and even positioning itself as a local-first operation (who knew McDonald’s uses California clementines?).
Specifically, the company is using its spots this year to tell the world that it is making slightly less awful chicken McNuggets. The reason? We—choosy moms, especially—asked for it. Aw, they’re listening!
Subway uses a similar tactic in its TV spot. With images of farmers loading just-picked food onto trucks, a narrator announces the company’s “search for better”—“a fresh start.” The saccharine commercial concludes with a bold statement from the sandwich chain that research shows is just as unhealthy as other fast food restaurants: “Every day we’re finding new ways to serve fresh, locally sourced produce, and food free of artificial preservatives—whenever and wherever possible.”
Even Coke, while not going locavore or touting its healthfulness, is airing a tear-jerker of a commercial featuring the patriotic hymn “America, The Beautiful” being sung in several languages. *sniff*
It’s clear these Olympic sponsors are taking a different tack than they have in past years. What are we to make of it all?
Well, like so many things, there’s good news and bad. On a positive note, the effort put forth by these companies to use the national stage to paint themselves as listening, improving—even good for you—is a testament to the tectonic shift in what Americans expect from the food we eat. More of us want it to be better. Less processed. Not shipped from half-way around the world—local, even. The debate that has been raging for several years over the labeling of genetically modified foods is a great example of this. Some companies do, in fact, seem to be listening to calls for better.
The bad news, of course, is that these are still companies that make countless billions of dollars distributing fatty, sugary junk throughout the world. Small cosmetic changes like cage-free eggs or antibiotic-free nuggets aside, McDonald’s, Subway, Coca-Cola and the rest will never stop selling junk. It’s where they make their money.
Ironically, these brands' contributions to obesity and diet-related disease around the world actually imperils the future crop of Olympians—and their own sponsorship opportunities. Let us not be fooled.
Photo credit: Alicia Cho