Originally published 1/25/15 in The Huffington Post
If food is culture, then we in America are a country divided. Though overt talk of class politics has always been somewhat taboo, the food industry has long engaged in various forms of class baiting. In the early 1960s, food manufacturers marketed their convenient products by appealing to middle class women who might have more free time, implying that through using their products, housewives could lead lives of the leisured upper class, writes Harvey Levenstein in Paradox of Plenty. In 1969, the chairman of the board of Corn Products Company said, "We -- the food industry -- have given [the housewife] the gift of time, which she may reinvest in bridge, canasta, garden club, and other perhaps more soul-satisfying pursuits."
This aspirational marketing appealed to a wide swath of consumers who saw the industry's new products as part of a modern and advanced lifestyle -- even a way to move into a higher social stratum. That's not new. What is new is that the modern-day incarnation of food manufacturers have actually inverted this strategy. It is on full display in several new McDonald's commercials that have taken many a viewer off guard in their blatant attempts to appeal to a crass and aggressive form of class politics.
One new commercial specifically calls out "vegetarians, foodies and gastronauts," and asks them to "kindly avert their eyes." The commercial shows an extreme close up of McDonald's signature Big Mac and goes on to exclaim that there is no quinoa or soy, Greek yogurt or kale to be found there. The male voiceover adds, "And while it is massive, its ego is not." This ad essentially says: Forget all those food snobs, food movement elites and otherwise obnoxious kale-and-Greek-yogurt-eating people of the upper classes, McDonald's makes food for the masses -- the "real" Americans, the hard-working folks without ego or pretense.
By appealing to this sensibility, McDonald's hopes to lure consumers in on the basis of class politics -- with the added advantage that its food products are cheap and convenient, making it a near-necessity in our current economy for many of those same hard-working people. But here's the problem: diet-related diseases affect poor and working class people disproportionately, since people of lower socioeconomic status tend to consume lower-quality diets.
In another new ad that debuted during the Golden Globes (sparking social media ire), McDonald's redoubles its efforts to be seen as "every man's food," to appear integral to the American way of life. In this ad, McDonald's shows local and national events the company has put up on its roadside signs, "both happy and tragic," from celebrating local births and anniversaries, to recognizing national events with slogans like, "Boston Strong" and "We Remember 911," all set to the tune of a pop song sung by a children's choir. This kind of sappy, overwrought ploy to pull on the heartstrings of Americans while repeatedly showing those famous Golden Arches exemplifies some of the worst in shameless advertising.
This is especially true when we remember what McDonald's is actually selling: foods that are making Americans sick. The company is hawking dangerous products to the very people it is purporting to celebrate and represent. All of which makes McDonald's latest ad campaigns more problematic than they may at first appear. If it were selling products equally healthy to kale and quinoa, but perhaps less precious, say, rice and beans, then this type of marketing would be fair game. But since it is selling arguably one of the worst industrial products known to humankind (with related environmental consequences that affect everyone) the ad crosses the line into deceptive and harm-inducing territory.
And in an additional and incongruous ad campaign launched in October, McDonald's is claiming transparency -- something the farm-to-table crowd has been advocating for years. Here McDonald's is making a gesture toward the same group of people it disparages in the ad that calls out "foodies." This signals some desperation on McDonald's part: claiming the "every-man" class politics and insulting "foodies" on the one hand, while simultaneously trying to appeal to those same people by lauding "100 percent pure beef, no fillers, extenders or so-called 'pink-slime.'" With McDonald's reporting a 30 percent quarterly drop in profit this past October, the corporation is attempting to cover all bases.
But in doing so McDonald's insincerity shines through. It's clear the company doesn't really care about the people it claims to celebrate or speak for -- not the health of Americans, or the right to a fair and decent wage for workers.
Rather than alluding to transparency by making empty claims about its products, McDonald's foods -- among thousands of other industrial food products -- deserve labels alerting consumers to exactly what the food contains and what known health risks certain ingredients pose. If McDonald's really cares about the average American, as it purports to in its ads, how about some real transparency that makes it so "every-man" has more information about what he (or she) is eating?
And let's also call out its straw man marketing schemes that pit those concerned about the quality of our food supply against the "average Joe." Why are these mutually exclusive? The food industry has done a brilliant job of making words like organic, sustainable, and now, kale, words that signify a privileged elite bent on ruining real American food and policing everyone else's behavior. But if anything has ruined American food, and changed eating behaviors, it's the industrial food system with McDonald's, the nation's largest producer of fast food leading the way.