Shir Avinadav: American Fast Food: Selling us what we want, not what we need

Wednesday, November 16, 2016 - 5:40pm

This past weekend, my friends and I made the straining seven-hour drive to Iowa and back for the football game only to return disappointed, heartbroken and hungry.

As we desperately sped past The Largest Truck Stop in the World, the Mississippi River and the Indiana border, eager to return home to Ann Arbor, our conversation shifted to the dense smattering of billboards advertising fast food. Signs indicating exits to McDonald’s and Arby’s popped up over a dozen times, each time beckoning us to stray off our path and satisfy our hunger with greasy, salty food. Cracker Barrel called out to us with its “Country Fried Comfort.” It sounded better and better the more signs we passed.

I recall being pretty much infatuated with McDonald’s from an early age. I was always excited by the prospect of eating there, especially since it was a rare (once or twice a year) occurrence. The novelty of eating at McDonald’s made it seem like a treat to be awaited, and any family member or friend who took me there instantly won brownie points. The crispy fries and mystery toy prize triggered some part of my brain that made me yearn to go back again each time I went.

I couldn’t understand why my mom wouldn’t allow me my coveted Happy Meal more often. If it was so good, why did she act like it was something to be avoided or limited to infrequent indulgences?

This memory crossed my mind as my friend and I began discussing how totally and completely disgusting the poor excuse for real food the grease-soaked, sodium-laden combination of chemicals is that these establishments serve their customers. I mean, who do they think they’re fooling into thinking that it’s real food?

Six-year-old me, that’s who.

Though from an early age we’re told to eat our vegetables and restricted from choosing any of the highly appealing sugary items in the grocery store cereal aisle by our parents, there’s a basic instinct we all share — the desire to eat what tastes good. That desire has been tapped into and commodified by the vast majority of the American food industry and the corporations that oversee fast food chains like McDonald’s. Advertisements and packaging designed to appeal to our desires permeate the food landscape, infiltrating our homes and our newsfeeds and littering the margins of our highways.

These monstrous fast food chains market to increase consumption and reduce consciousness. Their ultimate goal is to profit. And if people are willing to subsidize places like these in return for a cost-effective, gratifying meal, no matter the form in which it’s presented to them, these companies don’t have much of an incentive to do otherwise. They sure do know their audience. Can you think of anyone else who’s made the news recently that does as well? (Hint: the new president-elect of our country, Donald Trump).

While we scrutinized the phenomenon that is the fast food industry for several miles, it hit me — the political sphere has become a lot like consumerism, selling us platforms that we’re believed to want, not necessarily the less shiny, less enticing policies and candidates we actually need.

In a sense, Trump’s campaign platform offered up a heavy serving of political fast food — promising to boost the economy and reinforce national security. The simple tag line, “Make America Great Again,” repeated over and over again and stamped across bright red hats acted as a fast food marketing slogan, extending the promise of comfort and satisfaction through superficial means.  

I’m by no means a political expert and don’t claim to know the many reasons prompting individual voters to support Trump, but I can attempt to assess the mass appeal of the most prevalent ideas purported by him and his campaign. Within the framework of the fast food industry, Trump is a Big Mac. He appeals to hungry voters (white middle-class individuals who feel disenfranchised and disillusioned with their system of government) with a simple, yet resounding promise of satisfying them. The frequency and repetition of his campaign slogan and auspicious rhetoric strategically made him appear favorable to an audience craving a seemingly easy, quick fix (like a cheap, readily available meal).

Surely by now, everyone’s sick and tired of hearing about the election and about Trump (especially in the form of online rhetoric), but it’s difficult to push the events of the past two weeks out of my mind as I think about the role food plays in our society and everyday lives, because the media and our political system inextricably play a similar role.

In the past few years, the media (particularly social media) surrounding the election has been inescapable, and its content has grown more sensationalized, more disruptive and more nonsensical than has ever been before. Rather than working to the detriment of a candidate who utilized this absurdity to its extreme, it worked to his benefit. And that says more about what characterizes our country culturally and socially than it does about the candidate himself.

It’s easy to disseminate information and ideas through simple means, just as it is to mass produce frozen burgers and sell them to consumers. Now that we’ve become consumers of mass media and social media, it’s more important than ever to selectively choose what we consume and how we consume it — just as we do with food.

At the end of the day, people are being sold a facsimile of what they want — whether it’s a flashy new vision of America that may be unrealistic or detrimental to its people, or a beverage containing enough sugar to knock out a small child for an hour — regardless of whether it’s really what they need.

So, to six-year-old me, the golden arches and red boxes promising an exciting new toy may have fooled me into wanting McDonald’s, but I know better now. As a country, we should know better by now too.