Patrick Crewdson - former Customer Service Team Member, Auckland

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Flipping the dirty bird

If Morgan Spurlock ever has children, it's a safe bet they won't be joining the McDonalds Kids Club. Adults struggle to kick the fast food habit, the director of Super Size Me says, partly because of instinctive fond memories of McDonalds playgrounds and happy meals.

You're eating a tasty burger with your mom, and you're warm and it creates a good feeling that you associate with Maccas. That's why when I have children, I'm going to punch them in the head every time we drive past a fast food place.
It's as good an excuse for child abuse as I've ever heard. And, if you'll forgive the digression, it's very Jack Handy:

One thing kids like is to be tricked. For instance, I was going to take my little nephew to Disneyland, but instead I drove him to an old burned-out warehouse. "Oh, no," I said. "Disneyland burned down." He cried and cried, but I think that deep down, he thought it was a pretty good joke.
Back on topic: I haven't eaten McDonalds since 1996. For me, forsaking Fish Fillets and shoestring fries was a moral stand, sparked by McDonalds' felling of rain forests and mistreatment of animals and, y'know, all that other McLibel stuff. Plus, I thought it was hella punk. My friends weren't impressed by my staunch anti-establishment principles; I had an after-school job at KFC at the time, so I expect it just looked like anti-competitive behaviour. And to be honest, when I eventually quit KFC - late in 1997, just before I sat Bursary (with 6th form cert I was already the second mostly highly qualified employee) - it wasn't a decision based on ethics.

New Zealand's first McDonalds (you'll have to excuse me for avoiding chummy nicknames like 'The Golden Arches') opened in Porirua in 1976. There are now 148 nationwide, the newest opening in Hamilton last year. KFC takes the silver medal, with 95 outlets. Burger King? 63 (I have fond memories of ruthlessly exploiting the free refills system when the Wellington store opened in 1996 - maybe somebody should punch me in the head). I haven't tasted Burger King since 2000, and I'm pretty sure I've only eaten KFC twice in the last five years. I still believe it's fair to criticise most fast food purveyors on their corporate practices, but these days my reasons for spurning Big Macs, Whoppers, and the dirty bird are mostly health-related. (I saw Super Size Me with Tash at the film festival. We were sharing a postmix Diet Coke from the cinema candy bar and every time Spurlock upsized his drinks or calculated the amount of sugar he was consuming we felt compelled to justify ourselves to everyone else in the theatre: "It's Diet! Honestly - sugar free!")

An AC Nielsen survey in 2001 showed that 43% of people had eaten McDonalds over the last month, 33% had bought KFC, and 21% had consumed Burger King. The local specialty beat them all though, with 61% opting for the two scoops and battered shark in the preceding 30 days. The provisional results of the 2002/3 Ministry of Health NZ Health Survey said almost 56% of New Zealanders were overweight or obese. In the US it's 60%. Spurlock says Australia comes in just behind America as the world's second chubbiest country (maybe someone can work that into a chant for the Bledisloe Cup this weekend).

It seems ludicrous to say New Zealanders are almost as porky as Americans. We're not, even if we're on the same diet plan, and a montage of fat asses is all the proof we need of that. (I should also point out that there's dispute over the validity of the popular BMI scale of weight measurement.) That's not the point of Spurlock's film though.

Super Size Me is not a brilliant documentary. The camera work alone should incur at least 15 cinematic demerit points. But it is an idea whose time has come. The deleterious health effects on Spurlock's weight, internal organs, and sex drive surpassed even the worst expectations of his doctors. His (admittedly unscientific) phone poll of nutritionists revealed that a majority said you should never eat fast food. Super Size Me won't kill the fast food chains, even if it did prompt McDonalds to drop its super size option from the menu. What it does is to provide evidence for the very very obvious fact that fast food is bad for you. Does Super Size Me demonstrate a casual link between eating fast food and 'the obesity epidemic'? Not as such. Does it mean we should all forsake fast food? Hey, I've made the mistake of lecturing people on that before - I'm not gonna be that killjoy again. Does it mean that if you get fries with that once a week you're going to die? No. But it does indicate that we need to do something to arrest the slow cultural change that means New Zealanders eat out more and make worse dining choices than ever before. And in a ad-saturated, supply-and-demand economy, that means voting with your dollar.