Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Further To The Mac Attack

A commentator raised the point that Macca's menu has altered. He also suggested my antiMac rant was 'a bit 1990s', so I figure he's earned a little gentle return fire. But I also figure that the fellow in question is quite a clever chap, and if the McMenu changes have shifted his opinion, then it's possibly worthwhile raising a few points for all to consider.

I'm aware of the changes to Mickey's menu. I'm also aware of the degree to which they were essentially cosmetic, at least initially. For example: when they started bringing those 'healthy salads' on board, they served 'em up with more fat than their regular burgers carried. (It was in the dressing, and the mayonnaise.) Oh - and the Heart Foundation Tick is a bit of a sad joke these days, I'm afraid. There was some argy-bargy over their standards a few years ago, and to cut a long story short - it's a whole lot easier to get a HFT than it used to be, I have been told. The excuse, I believe, was that they were hoping to motivate people to take small steps, at the very least. The original HFT standards were just 'too stringent', and apparently people weren't motivated to make healthy choices as a result. Or something. Either way - Mickey Dee makes a lot of noise about scoring its HFT. But they don't talk very much about the health downside of their other menu items, do they?

In any case, for me the underlying problem is the approach of the chains to their customers and to food in general. Micky Dee and the Colonel and their ilk aren't actually about feeding you. They're about channeling and herding you into a branded corporate 'experience' that (they hope) you will wish to repeat endlessly. It's a very hard sell they've got going, and behind the very, very hard sell, behind all the advertising, behind all the toys and the movie tie-ins and the incredible amount of branding aimed at children, the actual "food" isn't particularly good. Or cheap.

It's the taking-aim-at-children that pisses me off, and it's that aspect which moved both Natalie and I -- and presumably Birmo -- to 'cheat' and misdirect our kids until they were old enough to make their own decisions. It's one thing for an adult to talk up the 'healthy menu items' and decide to have a 'salad and a bottle of water'. It's entirely another for a kid to overlook all the chips and the ice creams and the milkshakes and the toys and the colourful packaging and the commemorative movie-character plastic cups, etc.

I can't buy time on every kid's TV programme to advertise the quality of home cooking. I can't get the licensing rights to must-have plastic toys that match all the latest kids movies. I can't raise iconic signs that stick up higher than 'most anything else for kilometres around. I can't muster tens of thousands of franchise outlets in hundreds of countries around the world. I can't afford to sponsor major sporting events. And most importantly, there is no way I can hide all these things from my children. Even in rural Tas, in a township that has no clown, no colonel, no dancing goddam tacos, no Pizza the Hutt -- even in a place like this, you don't escape the branding, the advertising, the toys, and the massive corporate push.

They don't permit the advertising of tobacco to children. They don't permit the advertising of alcohol to children. This is because, as we all agree, most children are not particularly good at critical thinking. They don't have the necessary experience to make complex, value-weighted judgements about issues which (for example) strongly affect their long-term health.

Current research suggests that the 'classic menu' stuff from the clown and the colonel is actually very, very bad for you indeed. Some of the papers coming liken the severity of long-term effects of heavy McEating to the damage done by heavy smoking and drinking. And even if you don't believe the research, take a look around you. There's a full-on epidemic of obesity out there, folks.

Think back to when you were a kid in school. How many 'fat kids' did you see? My memory is clear and sharp. I can remember the 'fat girl' in my grade 1 class. I also remember the 'fat girl' in my grade 3 class. Try as I may, I don't recall a single significantly overweight boy in any of my classes in the little country schools I attended.

In my first high school - Cairns High, 1200 kids - my year eight class had one boy who was overweight by the standards of the day. (You wouldn't look twice at him now.) I can remember seeing a handful of other kids who were overweight. Not many, though. They stood out. People noticed them.

My second high school was quite small - maybe eighty kids. But I remember the one overweight boy quite clearly, and the two girls who were heavier than they ought to have been. (One of the girls was aboriginal, which definitely has bearing on the issue. Obesity among the aboriginal population in Australia is an even bigger problem than in the white population.)

I went to school between 1972 and 1981, in the Cairns area. There was one KFC outlet, and no clownage at all.

Do I blame the clown and the colonel for modern lardy-arsedness? Hell, no - at least, not entirely. There are plenty of other dietary disasters and lifestyle changes that have come down the line since my school days. But there's no denying there are an awful lot of fat kids around now. And no matter what you may wish to say about the new menu items at Mickey Dee -- as far as I can tell, they're essentially 'gateway drugs', or 'enablers', designed to quell parental anxieties.

Because how many parents are going to order only the 'healthy' salad stuff, and tell the kids they can't have just a small bag of those hyper-advertised fries as a treat? (Go ahead. Close your eyes. How many different TV images can you recall, extolling the virtues of those 'fries'? Pervasive, aren't they?) And how many kids aren't going to ask for maybe just a soft drink, or even just a little ice-cream after their nice, 'healthy' salad?

"A bit 1990s"? I don't think so. The epidemic of morbidly fat, unhealthy, inactive kids looks very much like a 'today, right now' problem to me.

I have absolutely no guilt, no shame, and no regrets about keeping my kids away from the clown and his pusher buddies. And I'm not in any way impressed by 'fig-leaf' tactics involving salad items, Heart Foundation Ticks, or press releases extolling the healthy qualities of the new-look menus. Behind the lip-service to health, it's business as usual, and for those corporations, 'business as usual' means acquiring my children's reflexive eating habits as early as possible.

In fact, if you want to talk "1990s", I think you need look no further than the corporate culture of the Colonel and the Clown. After all, we're supposed to be savvier consumers these days. We're not supposed to be brand-loyal any more (except maybe for Apple addicts. They're weird.) The era of the 'captive audience' is supposedly over. Theoretically, modern corporations survive by responding to the needs of their market -- not by dictating to that market, and drowning any possible alternatives in an ocean of advertising money and media tie-ins.

Or maybe it's even older than 1990s, eh? St Francis Xavier and the Jesuits: "Give me the child until he is seven, and I will give you the man." Seems to me the Colonel and the Clown are thoroughly aware of that adage, and judging by the amount of money they spend targeting small children, they're acting on it. And by the decreasing number of children who qualify as 'small', they're having a lot more success than they deserve.

There's a lot more to this argument than I've covered. The more you dig, the more complicated and nasty the whole thing becomes. You get into issues of factory farming, of massive antibiotic usage to keep animals free of infection under crowded, unhygienic conditions. You find questions about land clearing, and about corporate farming practices in general. One example: here, where I live, a friend of mine leased one of his paddocks to a grower who was producing potatoes for McChips. The grower had to use a very, very specific variety of potato -- the only one the corporation will use. And further, only potatoes of a very specific size range were acceptable: anything too large or too small was simply left abandoned in the field.

As a result, when the season was done, my friend went out into his field and collected over a tonne of potatoes which had been left, deemed unacceptable. Initially, my friend thought this was quite the windfall. And it really does seem like a lot of wasted food, doesn't it?

It wasn't, though. We tried cooking those potatoes. They were the most extraordinarily tasteless things I've ever tried to eat. Didn't matter what you did to 'em -- it tasted like you were eating plain flour. Just starch. In the end, he composted most of 'em. (As I understand it, the 'fries' get flavouring added during the processing. McD is very, very careful to ensure that their 'fries' taste exactly the same the world over, after all.)

Still, tasteless or not... there were an awful lot of those potatoes left lying in that field because they don't meet cosmetic standards. That's a considerable investment in energy, in arable land, in fertiliser and manpower. Multiply that one little field by all the tens of thousands of fields all over the world that are needed to supply the Clown and the Colonel. And then glance across at all the places in the world where there's not enough to eat.

This has been a long post, triggered by a short comment. I accept the original statement wasn't intended in any hostile sense, and in writing this, my intent isn't to target a light-hearted, offhand remark from one person. But as I said: the person in question is no fool, and in his opinion, the 'new menu' represents a noteworthy improvement. To me, that suggests it's worth raising a few of the deeper issues. And at the very least, hopefully it explains my perspective as a parent just a little more clearly.