Monday, January 10, 2011

McDonalds, Paris and Children

Actual advertisement in the Paris Metro. (2002-2003)
You may have heard that McDonalds is being sued by a mother in Sacramento over its marketing of Happy Meals. I'm confused just where I stand on this. Though I believe in freedoms of expression and commerce, I'm also concerned about corporate responsibility; specifically regarding food. I don't believe foods should be restricted just because someone thinks (or science "proves") that they're bad for you. But I think people should be provided with the information they need to make their own informed decisions. The problem is, the overwhelming force of brand marketing overrides or entirely replaces the decision-making process for a lot of folks; mainly parents.

Food marketing geared toward children is impossible to avoid. During the holidays we see ads featuring snowmen, reindeer and other animated furries in "aww shucks" low-risk advertising. It's cute; it's charming, and I tune it out. But I don't have children begging me to bring them to a restaurant to get a toy. You could say I don't have a dog in this fight, or even a bear.

I lived in France for a stretch and I was confronted with McDonalds' marketing everywhere. I snapped the top photo of the dogs in Chatelet-Les Halles, the largest metro hub in all of Paris. Les Halles used to be the central food market of Paris for over a century, which was moved to the outskirts to make way for an urban shopping mall. So now in the middle of Paris you can enter a McDonalds playing American music on their PA and order a cheeseburger and Coke while looking onto the paved square where a legendary food market used to be. There's even a McDonald's practically inside of the Louvre.

Thank you Dave Granlund for permission:

Wanting to fit in, I didn't acknowledge that McDonalds was part of my culture; where I was from. I didn't spend a lot of money on food back then; not nearly as much as I do now. My diet consisted mainly of crepes and panini prepared by sidewalk vendors, and the bread, cheese and fruit that I could pick up from bakeries and markets in my neighborhood. There are certain aspects of Paris which are quite affordable, and a single person can eat well on just a few Euros a day. But there are not that many places where a family can eat affordably and I soon learned that McDonalds is considered one of them by many in Paris.

So back to the picture with the two dogs: What do you see? What's the message in the ad? There are many, non? Je t'expliquerai Chez McDo translates to "I'll explain it to you at McDonald's.” The dad has to explain the birds and the bees to the son, and for some reason McDonalds is the place to go. I'm not sure I follow the logic, but let's go with it. Essentially the ad posits that rights of passage like this should be coupled with a meal at McDonalds, itself a right of passage into consumerdom. (In fairness, I'll mention that Ronald McDonald Houses are safe places for families to stay while their children receivedmedical treatments.)

This look is priceless. Or rather, what is the price?
I spent several years toying with my thoughts on this ridiculous image, so indulge me here on an absurd rant. To me, the Top Dog is McDonalds' corporate voice, and it seems to be saying: "I'm gonna give it to you bitches, as I wish--in front of your kids even." The Bottom Dog perhaps is the stand-in for the consumer, though s/he may be the one being consumed in this case. Bottom Dog has a priceless look on his/her face--one of being inured to abuse. Regardless, the poor dog certainly doesn't look very hungry for another bone. I contend the imagery would've been no less subtle if the dog were taking a piss on the Tricolore. Maybe my logic doesn't hold up under scrutiny.

The Tricolore.
What do the father and son discuss at Chez McDo, anyway? The encroachment of US GMO foods into world markets? The prevailing sentiment among consumers in Europe is that American meats and foods are loaded with hormones, pesticides and genetic modifications that make us angry, agressive and fat. I have no references, but trust me I talked to a lot of people about food. The Europeans don't want to touch our meat imports with a ten-foot pole. We eat like kings in the US, even some of the poorest among us, because we are so efficient at growing food quickly and abundantly. I use the "royal we" not because I is a farmer, but because "we" is supporting the system by our purchasing choices.

What is the "real" cost of food? Starting an unhealthy diet at an early age can lead to premature aging and costly health maintenance. One of the reasons our healthcare system is so fucked up is because the vast majority of us (myself included) don't take much personal ownership about how awful the food is that we jam down our gullets. We are the literal fat geese being force-fed, only we do it to ourselves. Instead of our livers being harvested, our disease and disorder are exploited by an industry that only stands to gain by our un-healthiness. (An aside--this is a thoughtful and insightful piece on foie gras was written by a local chef.)

2010 Per Capita Healthcare Spending By Country; source:
These are just ideas mind you; maybe I just needed to rant, and what better target than McDonalds?

I'm almost ashamed to admit that among countless street crepes and the occasional bistro dinner, one of my happiest meals in Paris was at Chez McDo on the Champs-Élysées, where I ordered a cheeseburger and milkshake with the pocket change from buying a metro pass. It reminded me of home. All the good things. And the bathroom was clean, the Coke was cold, and "Jenny on the Block" was playing on the radio. Half of the customers were families with little kids; mostly happy and preoccupied, some pushing little toys around on the table, oblivious of the food in front of them.

(revised 3/2012)

If you're interested in further reading on my time in Paris, visit my other blog.


  1. Back in '92, when I arrived in Madrid at 6pm, starving, the only place open at that time of day was, you guessed it, Mickey Ds. My older sis & I descended on it like dogs on a bone (^_~), thrilled we could also order wine w/ our Macs.

    One of the best burgers I've ever eaten, BTW.

    A necessary evil...perhaps. I didn't think so at the time.

    We of course ventured out into wonderful other restaurants throughout the city and other areas over the course of our week there. Indeed, the best chicken I've even eaten (to this day) we consumed just a block or two from there a few nights later at a Cafeteria'. Amazing.

  2. That ad is hilarious, and on that note, I'm glad that, although I do have children, we don't do the fast food thing because we are vegetarians. We used to go to BK because they had a mac'n'cheese kid's meal, but they discontinued that.

    I, too, went to McD's in Paris -- just because. I think I got the fries and a beer. I mean, sometimes something familiar is necessary when you're a 21 year old American college student! (which I was back then).

    thanks for the laugh.

  3. Anonymous4/19/2011

    This made me laugh out loud! Thanks for writing such fun, witty pieces.


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