In nearly every talk I’ve given over the past few months, I’ve described how the fast food industry so effectively manipulated cultural norms over the past century–transforming the hamburger from a food that was dangerous and unappetizing in the early 1900s to the all-American meal today. In fact, half of all fast food restaurants are now burger joints in the US, and there are 10,000 McDonald’s restaurants alone, as this very disturbing map reveals:
But it’s clear that advertising alone was not enough to drive this shift; as with other industries, fast-food companies effectively used a variety societal institutions to transform cultural norms. They influenced government policies, they used the media (not just ads, but embedded product placements, and even an entire movie–if you haven’t seen Mac and Me count yourself lucky), they created goodwill through charitable giving, and most importantly, they shaped our children’s tastes and preferences. McDonald’s, especially, has been very successful in getting children to love their meals: by offering children toys with their food (I’ve watched my nieces scramble for McDonald’s primarily so they could get a new toy–the food was secondary if that); by installing playgrounds at their restaurants; and of course by having a loving cast of characters promoting their fare–Grimace, the Hamburglar (my personal favorite as a child), Birdie, and others, all led by the infamous ringleader Ronald McDonald.
If only the individuals and organizations driving forward sustainability could create as personable characters as these, perhaps there wouldn’t be a sustainability crisis. (Sure, Captain Planet is fine, but we need a dozen more like him–targeting all different age groups and demographics.)
But at the same time that we need innovators to create new characters, we must battle against those that by their very presence, peddle toxic food and the consumer lifestyle to children. Already, society forcibly retired Joe Camel and now a coalition of organizations are working to “Retire Ronald” (and hopefully his partners in crime). Hopefully, this effort by Corporate Accountability International will help force regulators to ban Ronald (because I can envision few scenarios where McDonald’s will voluntarily give up Ronald–he’s too valuable as a brand ambassador as a McDonald’s spokesperson explained). But even if this campaign fails, it is one more push against the efforts to normalize consumerism, so that in itself is invaluable. We have to keep holding back the tide of the consumer culture, while others help spread a culture of sustainability, by transforming school menus, creating restaurants that sell healthy food (but still have clowns and playgrounds), and so on. That’s the only way we’ll move beyond a cultural system that undermines human health and planetary health so completely. And perhaps Ronald, while enjoying all his newfound free time in retirement, can volunteer to market organic vegetables–consider it penance for addicting two generations to burgers, fries, and Coke.