Just take a look around Portland, San Francisco, New York, or London: the Slow/local/sustainable Food movement is making a dent in the food market. Powell’s has a special display in the cookbook section dedicated to literature that has come out of the movement. Just leaving my apartment, I pass by Burgerville, a Northwestern burger chain that prides itself on using local ingredients and sustainable methods. The UK TV’s food channel has the “Local Food Hero Award,” a reality tv show which awards businesses that specialize in local foods. San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market is becoming a major tourist destination in the city, as is the farmer’s market in New York’s Union Square. Organics are everywhere from Walmart to Safeway. It’s gotten to the point where even McDonalds is trying to play the game with its “What We’re Made Of” (link to McDonald’s website. Sorry.) advertisements, which attempt to portray the company as being conscientious of its suppliers (Check out “From Farm to Restaurant” section, which has suspiciously been “coming soon” since June.). This approach is the herald of a new era for fast food: adapt or strike back.
Unsurprisingly, fast food isn’t going down without a fight; while McDonald’s plays the healthy game, other chains, such as Burger King and KFC have a new strategy: they are positioning themselves as being the anti-snobs, the every day guy. Though they never explicitly mention Slow Food or any other related movement, these companies directly target them, dismissing them as stuck-up and out of touch with the average consumer.
About a year ago, Burger King came out with “Manthem.” The idea was to play off of the 70’s women’s movement. They had men singing out to the tune of Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman,” proclaiming liberation from the oh-so terrible oppression of their girlfriends’ “chick food” (vegetables, quiche, and tofu), which was simply not filling or manly enough for them. At core, their strategy was to turn health concerns into a gendered issue. Lyrics such as “I will eat this meat, until my innie turns into an outie” conflates any worries we might have had about the healthiness of fast food with the American obsession with thinness. This, suggests Burger King, is a girlie worry; so go head, eat our meat.
But the commercial goes even deeper than that–Burger King also associates women with the upper (or upper-middle) class as it celebrates men as being working class heroes. The only female character (aside from a few sprinkled in for decoration) in the commercials tries to force her boyfriend to eat dinner at a fancy, snotty restaurant. Chick food, apparently, does not come cheap. Is the whole association ridiculous? Clearly. But Burger King is out for working-class men (and a few women who proudly disassociate themselves from the snotty health-obsessed.), which, as you’ve probably noticed from this election’s obsession with “Joe Six-pack,” is the current image of the stereotypical American middle class.
This trend is still out there in KFC’s latest ad series: The $10 Challenge (link goes to the commercial, uploaded to Youtube). Here, a mother and her two kids attempt to make a fried chicken dinner on a $10 budget but with the current high cost of food, have to resort to going to KFC. The pristine supermarket, with its brick walls and green accents, cunningly emulates Whole Foods or other “foodie” grocery storie; KFC wants us to believe that that wholesome home-cooked meals that the food movement champions simply aren’t feasible in our current economy.
Fortunately, judging from the reactions I’ve seen both in the YouTube comments and the wonderful world of food blogs (which, granted, tends to be biased against fast food. See here and here.), KFC has misread the market. In fact, the backlash against this campaign is so strong that googling “KFC $10 challenge” leads to critical articles and forum postings but nary an official link. As one YouTube commenter (using the name lvingwell) suggested, “Any frugality 101 student could whip this challenge in a heartbeat!” . At the same time, I think these commercials point out an issue that we food activists have a difficult time dealing with: even as we push for better food, we are also pushing for more expensive food. Even before the market crash, this was an issue, and it’s only getting worse.
Fast food is tapping into the cracks of Slow Food’s marketing technique. The food movement has become an upper class movement; even the blog “Stuff White People Like” (which could just be as easily known as stuff yuppies like) has farmer’s markets on its list (As a side note, McDonald’s launched a campaign for their southern chicken sandwich featuring Black actors at the same time as “What We’re Made of.” Though the WWMO commercials don’t actually have any actors in them, I have to wonder whether they saw it as attracting a “White” market as a counterpoint to their southern chicken.). The elegant cookbooks offer recipes that even I, a foodie who doesn’t flinch at the thought of making Thai green curry entirely from scratch, probably wouldn’t make. Fast Food may be playing dirty, but they’re playing off of real issues.
And so, this is why I’m heartened to see advertisements on buses and the MAX for Oregon-based programs that make it possible for food stamps to buy fruits and vegetables. This is why I support the efforts of Ann Cooper, a school lunch reformer who does her best to make sure kids get nutritious, balanced lunches. If the food movement stays a movement for the privileged, it’s going to fizzle. If we move in new, more comprehensive directions, we’re actually going to change things.