Photo Credit: courtesy of Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
The scene: A deceased man with a protruding gut lies beneath a white sheet in the morgue. A woman weeps as she looks down, stroking his hair. The camera pans around, allowing the viewer to see a half-eaten hamburger clutched in the dead man’s right hand. We continue down to his feet, sticking out from the white linen, and the camera halts. Suddenly, those famous golden arches appear, tracing up and around his toes, and the phrase "I was lovin' it" shows up. (Playing on McDonald’s slogan of “I’m lovin it.”) A voiceover artist reads, "High cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart attacks. Tonight, make it vegetarian."
The provocative commercial, produced by the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), blatantly targets McDonald’s high-fat fare. It aired on Thursday in Washington, D.C., during The Daily Show and local news broadcasts. (A PCRM survey shows that Washington, D.C. has more McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC outlets per square mile than eight other cities with similar population sizes; heart disease kills more than 1,500 district residents annually.)
“Our city’s addiction to Big Macs and other high-fat fast food is literally breaking our hearts,” says PCRM’s nutrition education director Susan Levin, M.S., R.D. “It’s time to tackle the district’s heart disease problem head-on. A moratorium on new fast-food restaurants could be a critically important step toward fighting this epidemic.”
McDonald’s issued a response to the provoking ad saying, “This commercial is outrageous, misleading and unfair to all consumers. McDonald’s trusts our customers to put such outlandish propaganda in perspective, and to make food and lifestyle choices that are right for them."
Who’s right here? Is Ronald McDonald actually the grim reaper in disguise? And even if he is, is he to blame for the hundreds of thousands of men and women who die every year from heart disease? After all, it’s not as if the Hamburglar is pointing a French-fry gun at the public’s head, forcing them to scarf down apple pies. Free will dictates that we can create our own medical destiny; if we want to keep our arteries unclogged and our joints unburdened by extra pounds, we’ll choose healthful foods and get regular exercise. If we want to die an early(ier) death, struggle with Type 2 Diabetes and wear a CPAP machine at night to counter obesity-induced sleep apnea, we’ll eat a steady diet of fast food.
Steve Siebold, author of Die Fat or Get Tough: 101 Differences in Thinking Between Fat People and Fit People, says the ad merely scapegoats McDonald’s, and that anyone not living under a rock knows fast food is unhealthy. “This new commercial misses the mark because it gives overweight people another outlet to blame for a problem that they created. They say it’s the food manufacturers, restaurants, portion sizes, thyroid glands and now McDonalds. The bottom line: If you’re fat, it’s your own fault.”
That said, I do understand PCRM’s point. Studies show fast food consumers have an increased risk of obesity, a main risk factor for heart disease. And it’s not just regular Gordita consumption that puts you in harm’s way: Even a single fatty meal can raise blood pressure, stiffen major arteries, and cause the heart to beat harder.
Food brings us pleasure and McDonald’s French fries are just flat-out delicious. When we consume items like those found in Ronald’s crib, our brain reacts in a similar fashion as it would when someone snorts cocaine: Pleasure receptors in the brain light up, “hooking” us on fast food. McDonald’s knows this, and they exploit it mercilessly.
But it’s like the saying goes, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” Fast food exists and it’s not going anywhere soon. Would we be a healthier world without it? Of course. But that’s not reality. We’ve got to stop the blame game. The best course of action is to educate consumers about the dangers of deep fried potatoes, overly-salted meat patties and saturated fat-laden ice cream cones. We can strive to ensure healthier alternatives are available at all price points. We can urge fast food companies to stop targeting specific ethnic and socioeconomic groups with advertising. After that, though, it’s up us to mind our waistlines.
The PCRM commercial will air in other fast-food addicted cities with high rates of heart disease over the following months, so be on the lookout if you live in Alabama, Kentucky, Oklahoma and West Virginia.
Who do you think is ultimately responsible for obesity? The individual or the corporate giant? Chime in below.