Burger eaters: McDonald's made me do it

by Janet Colwell
Copyright 1998 San Francisco Business Times
March 16, 1998

Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onion on a sesame seed bun -- appetizing promo or recipe for disaster?

Even now, in an era of healthier living, McDonald's ode to its high-fat, cholesterol-laden star burger may seem innocuous. But 20 years from now? The fast-food maven may find itself answering the same questions now facing cigarette makers.

A recent Wall Street Journal article discussed McDonald's efforts to promote the film "Armageddon," part of its 10-year marketing alliance with Disney. Its latest challenge is to lure adult customers in order to invigorate slumping domestic sales. The newspaper cited "internal marketing memorandum" showing that McDonald's is planning a sweeping promotional campaign aimed at adults.

Internal memos? Losing domestic market share? Are we talking hamburgers or cigarettes?

Stay tuned for a rash of lawsuits contending that, in the name of a quick buck, McDonald's, Burger King and their ilk targeted potential junk-food addicts, setting them up for a lifetime of problems with clogged arteries, obesity and other life-threatening diseases.

Can one really liken smoking cigarettes with a craving for burgers? Twenty or 30 years ago it might have sounded crazy, but many people didn't think smoking was so bad then either. A nasty habit that should be kicked, maybe, but nothing to be embarrassed about -- similar to how many of us today might think about lunching on a Big Mac with a side of fries.

With the comfort of distance, we smugly point the finger at the evil tobacco titans who circulated covert marketing plans to seduce potential teenage smokers. But if they acted immorally by targeting those most likely to buy their product, how is McDonald's different when it seduces coach potatoes with images of succulent double cheeseburgers?

If a high-cholesterol, fat-laden diet with no redeeming nutritional value is an express ticket to the grave, McDonald's may one day find itself explaining its marketing strategy to the courts and an increasingly hostile public.

Similarities between fast-food and tobacco marketing are too glaring to miss. Both, for example, shamelessly exploit the naiveté of young customers, drawing them in via the likes of Joe Camel or Ronald McDonald. McDonald's even portrays a high-fat binge as a fun family activity -- a perfect afterward to a matinee showing of "The Lion King."

In the future court of public opinion, this kind of marketing will only make the restaurant chain seem more pathetic. When old Ronald stopped earning his keep, the chain brought in "101 Dalmations," "Hercules" and other direct descendants of Mickey and Minnie, shamelessly allying junk food with heroes of classic children's cinema. Kids were hooked before they knew how to read food labels.

Smoking is so politically incorrect these days that it's easy to forget it's not illegal. But as long as it is, tobacco companies are justified in trying to attract new customers. Fast-food marketers differ only in not yet having inspired widespread public disapproval. Despite our rising health consciousness, there still exists a general appreciation of the craving for a greasy burger.

Is eating at McDonald's a victory over a health craze gone amuck or a habit headed for the category of "stupid things we used to do before becoming enlightened?"

If the latter proves true, we may one day find burger eaters alongside smokers huddled pathetically in alleyways, victims of an anti-cholesterol establishment.

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