People are suspicious of clowns. This distrust seems to be rooted in a perceived lack of sincerity—always smiling, always funny, always ready to entertain, the clown can’t really be what he so visibly presents himself as. Perhaps it is this same suspicion that motivates much of the criticism now directed at McDonald’s as the fast-food giant implements a new marketing strategy aimed at capturing health-conscious millennials. Several commentators have sounded off, convinced Ronald McDonald, for all the tens of millions of dollars he pays out to sick and poor children, is trying to pull a fast one.
Most unforgiving in her criticism is attorney Michele Simon, who excoriated McDonald’s for using philanthropy as a “shield against critics [and] to distract from its harmful business practices.” In October 2013 Simon authored a study in which she claims to show McDonald’s stinginess by comparing its rates of giving to other companies, or by comparing the company’s philanthropic budget to its advertising costs. According to numbers current at the time of Simon’s study, McDonald’s invested $34 million in charitable donations in 2011 out of a total $5.5 billion in net income that year. The company spent $843 million on advertising.
To attack a corporation for spending more on advertising than on philanthropy seems just shy of absurd, since for a business like McDonald’s advertising is precisely an engine driving the profits that generate the charitable dollars, whatever the amount. It is true, as Simon claims, that the percentage of McDonald’s profits devoted to charitable causes is significantly less than other top companies (for example, the burger chain donated 0.32% of pretax profits in 2011 while Wells Fargo pledged 1.3 percent and Walmart donated 4.5 percent, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy).
But this sort of numerical shell game can go on and on, and it ultimately misses the point, since critics like Simon are not motivated by scrupulosity as much as they are by disdain for McDonald’s as a cultural-moral metaphor. A centerpiece of Simon’s critical report is McDonald’s willingness to market to children, as if the international corporation were some back-alley drug dealer whose very presence constitutes an affront to good taste and a threat to public order. Simon is not alone in this prejudice, of course. University of Chicago law professor Heather Whitney explains the restaurant’s falling sales among millennials in a blog post for OnLabor:
[W]hat is particularly depressing about McDonald’s is the feeling that the people behind the counter, flipping burgers and taking orders, have dead-end jobs where they’re treated poorly. This feeling is a big turnoff for millennials who want to buy a feeling (fresh, happy, ethical) more than a meal. And, as a result, has led them to spend a little more to go to restaurants that provide those feelings. Currently, that means places like Chipotle, which promote good environmental and animal practices and are known for better pay. (emphasis added)
So it’s not simply health concerns that drive this animus towards McDonald’s—as Whitney notes, “a 1285-calorie Chipotle burrito isn’t so great either,” and much was made in mid 2013 when Freakonomics co-author Stephen Dubner called the McDouble “the cheapest, most nutritious, and bountiful food that has ever existed in human history.” Rather, the social and psychological costs of eating under the Golden Arches prove too high for most young people today. Thus, as the Wall Street Journal reports, the company is facing “steepest monthly decline in U.S. same-store sales in more than 14 years.”
Which explains the company’s new marketing campaign designed to stress togetherness and community, including a brightly animated commercial showing various archenemies putting aside their differences for the sake of a hamburger (Dorothy and the Wicked Witch take a selfie together, an elephant and a donkey embrace lovingly, etc.). More poignantly, another new McDonald’s commercial features signs from various franchise locations with personalized messages unique to their communities (“Boston Strong,” “Pray For Drew,” or “Welcome Home Sgt. Bob Maddocks. Thank You For Your Service”).
These signs serve to highlight a basic point about McDonald’s missed by sneering critics like Michele Simon: Many fast-food restaurants serve as a centerpiece of small local communities, a meeting place where young and old can (and do) socialize and eat cheap. Self-described “postmodern conservative” Peter Lawler has already offered some reasoned defenses of fast-food and chain restaurants, responding to both the bien pensants at the Grey Lady and anti-corporate conservatives of the “Porcher” variety, but the point is one that extends beyond the internecine squabbles of rightish academics.
If we are going to defend civil society, it means extending an appropriate measure of gratitude for the role that places like McDonald’s fill in their given town or neighborhood. If millennials’ nagging consciences are now driving McDonald’s to rebrand and reform some of its more heartless characteristics, all the better. But those who would cloak their personal cultural preferences in the guise of a righteous concern for philanthropic giving are playing fast and loose with emotions. And those, like the angsty millennials cited by Whitney, who seek to validate their sense of justice and self worth when ordering a milkshake, may need to find a deeper source of spiritual fulfillment.