Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Obesity With That Sir?

The latest McDonalds’ ad is telling. A man rushes to the counter and proceeds to push a microphone into the face of some bewildered kid bedecked in a green smock. “So what’s in your burgers?” he asks, in pursuit of the sort of anti-corporate expose that has fuelled Fast Food Nation and Super Size Me. Pressed, the kid blurts “100% Irish Beef.”

The reporter is left to stare despondently into the camera. Since the early nineties campaigners have systematically undermined the craftily manufactured identity of a global giant. After years of silencing activists with legal action, McDonalds found itself embroiled in the McLibel case, a magnificent act of corporate suicide, leaving behind a grinning skull with dollar symbols for eyes, and buckets of dirt to fling in Ronald McDonald’s face. Despite winning, the corporation unwittingly provided the defiant defendants a platform to expose the dangers of its food, its anti union record, its deliberate exploitation of kids through ads and its shoddy work practices in the longest running case in British history.

Years of ads have socialised people into wolfing down fast food, and outlets were forced to up their portion size in response. Images of overweight people dragging themselves around in motorised carts seems like off-kilter sci-fi, yet over-eating is as liable to kill an American as smoking. By 2000, there were 300 million obese adults. Not surprisingly this has created employment opportunities for people like Debora Senytka, a design engineer in General Motors' human/vehicle integration department. Hers is the responsibility of accommodating the ever-growing American waist-band without sacrificing extras like CD Players, cup-holder and god forbid airbags. Marshal Cohen, an industry analyst described the battle between clothes retailers and manufacturers, ‘designers didn't want to ruin the reputation of their brand by having anyone who was overweight walking around in their clothes." When regular sales slackened off, executives found fat people waddling around badly dressed and now 23% of all American sales are plus-size.

During the onslaught against McDonalds, other companies like Subway stepped into the ring, consciously targeting consumers with healthier options. In one of their most popular ad campaigns, a former heavy weight slips into his old trousers, they collapse around him like a circus tent. Transforming him into an icon of hope for the American obese. Provided of course, they change brand loyalties. Of course the health lecture is old hat. In the face of such competition and ailing profits, the latest McDonalds ad campaign sees them on the offensive, product images are being manipulated and now the brands are subverting the brand-bashers.

Changes in production methods prompted the development of the fast food industry. Where we see food being moved around but its production remains purposefully hidden. In 1960 a revolution occurred in the meat industry, a company called Iowa Beef Packers created a "disassembly" line for cattle that eventually did away with skilled workers. Many feedlots are owned or controlled by the four giant meatpacking firms, slaughtering 84% of American cattle. Family farms gave way to factory farming, just as family retailers gave way to WalMart. The skills of the local butcher were replaced by the automated modern slaughter house, just as the skills of the cook were replaced by the automated processes workers in McDonalds use. It’s easy to trace the origins of fast food corporations back to the early diners that sprouted in American factory districts to feed workers. As large scale production dispersed, they followed the shifting nature of work to harness the consumption of transient crowds of city centre shoppers and commuters. Instead of grubby factory worker hangouts, clever marketing transformed them into youth and family eateries. Just as political ideologues convinced us the working class was dead, and all that remained was consumers.

Fast food is intimately linked to our working lifes. 15% of Americans experience their first employment with McDonalds, if you can keep your head down in that boot camp and come out with a reference you are signalled out to future employers as someone who will swallow all sorts of shit for a pay packet. With conditions so severe in fast food joints, they normalise slightly better, yet crap, work elsewhere. As one group of McDonalds workers state ‘‘’first jobs’ at places like McDonalds have replaced national service as an often temporary stage of disciplining and preparation for a lifetime of subservience to capitalism.’ Fast Food Nation regales in how an alienated society has created an alienated means of feeding itself. Obesity and fast food does not just arise from the choices we as individual consumers make, it is intimately linked to how we are organised and disciplined in the workplace. Its interesting to note that in 1989 white collar workers consumed 32% of fast food in France and students another 32%. Just as old style American diners were the choice of factory workers, modern fast food outlets are the choice of low paid workers and cash strapped students.

With rampant property speculation forcing people into boxes ever further out in the suburbs, government undercutting decent public transport in favour of half assed private iniatives like the LUAS and traffic chaos. Returning home for lunch is no longer an option. After two hours sitting on a bus to get home, TV Dinners and junk food are an easy choice for a tired, stressed work force, just as a drive-through solves the problems of a starved commuter. Forced into fast food, as our work-breaks and the real value of our wages decrease, this is a real case of give me convenience or give me death. Give me obesity or 45 impatient minutes sitting in a restaurant for proper food. More and more of our lives become dominated by getting to and from work. Or over-coming its monotonous repetition. We have less and less time to prepare our own food. In the ‘60’s designer and psychologist Louis Cheskin persuaded McDonalds to keep the yellow arches logo, in some freudian way he argued they represented the nourishment of the mothers breast. As kids we were turned against ma’s cooking by ads, just as the early McDonald’s slogan “Give Mom a night off”, tempted working mothers away from aspects of their unpaid double shift in the home. Like most of our creative impulses, with cooking, there is no economic value in it for industry, if we do it for ourselves. It seems obvious, we should make sandwiches. But there is a whole philosophy of advertising dedicated to tearing us away from such self-sufficiency, others dedicated to taking on that role for us at exceptional costs, even the most simplistic aspects of our lives are colonised for profit.

People like Eric Schlosser see change arising from individuals making better choices in the market place, corporations will "sell free-range, organic, grass-fed hamburgers if you demand it. They will sell whatever sells at a profit." It is that simple. But playing brands off against each other leaves the social system breeding them in tact. Using the logic of profit and creating a consumer demand for healthier options, might give them a more ethical façade, more annoying ads and us a trimmer waist-band. But it will probably also add to the existing numbers of under paid and abused soya workers and exploited part-time teenage workers will remain. Nothing will change about the willingness of corporations to psychopathically ignore the concerns of society in pursuit of profit. If the present ordering of work and its domination of our lives by profit is the root, then breaking away from that and reclaiming a degree of control over such fundamentals as the companies producing what we eat is the solution. That requires organisation, and such organisation means anything but the atomised actions of individual consumers.

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