Why McDonald's New "We-Buy-Local" Ad Campaign Could Backfire

Last Updated Jul 29, 2010 11:44 PM EDT

McDonald's (MCD) has unveiled a new billboard campaign and Web site aimed at appeasing the buy-local crowd in Washington State. Unfortunately, a lame disclaimer slapped on the billboards, "participation and duration may vary," along with a lack of verifiable statistics on how much local sourcing the fast-food chain is really doing, have critics sniping that the ads smack of "localwashing."
It's great for McDonald's to strive for local sourcing. Moving to buying more product in-state reduces fuel needs, is less polluting, and keeps revenue in the local area, which community organizers like. It also saves on shipping costs for the Golden Arches, so it helps their bottom line as well.

But McDonald's has ignored two basic problems in constructing its campaign: Locavores are picky and passionate about this issue, and quick to call companies on fudging these claims; and there's no legal definition of what constitutes local sourcing. You can't say "Hey, we're locally sourcing!" but then tack on fine print that basically says "Well, really we're local sourcing if the franchise owners go for it, and we don't know for how long we can keep this up." It would have been better not to raise the issue at all, until McDonald's has its local-source program better defined and managers

So bannering a billboard with the headline "Served in Seattle, Grown in Pasco" (an eastern Washington farm-belt town) raises some questions. Pasco is more than 200 miles away -- so is that really local? It would meet the local-source standards set by Chipotle (CMG) in its "Food With Integrity" campaign... but there's no national standard.

For instance, McDonald's local-source fact sheet says its fish are 95 percent from the "Pacific Northwest." Translation: They're from Alaska, one of the nation's prime commercial-fishing regions. Is that local to Seattle? Most locavores would say no. McDonald's is stretching it too far on this claim, for sure.

It's probably no coincidence that McDonald's started a local-marketing campaign in a state that happens to be a big producer of apples and potatoes -- it's pretty easy to make some local claims here. Washington State also has a small population, so McDonald's can make mistakes here and refine its message without taking too big of a reputation hit. At this point, McDonald's has a ways to go before its local-sourcing campaign is ready for a bigger audience.

It also might be time for McDonald's, Chipotle and others to band together to try to push for national standards, too. If the companies want to make bought-local claims that enhance their reputations rather than inviting criticism, standards would help.

Photo via Filckr user scmikeburton

  • Carol Tice

    Carol Tice is a longtime business reporter whose work has appeared in Entrepreneur, The Seattle Times, and Nation's Restaurant News, among others. Online sites she's written for include Allbusiness.com and Yahoo!Hotjobs. She blogs about the business of writing at Make a Living Writing.