Reader Response: Fast Food Indulgence, Dirty Marketing Tricks and Personal Responsibility

In response to last month’s post about Carl Jr.’s fat fetish, conversation got going about occasional fast food indulgence (the temptations, the how-to’s, etc.) as well as whether we were placing too much blame on corporate marketing and not enough on individual immoderation. Reader Rachel offered this perspective:

I gotta say I don’t see anything wrong with indulging once in a while. I understand the popular opinion is that fast food is bad wrong and should be banished from the world. However, as Carla the first commenter stated “moderation”. We as individuals need to take responsibility for what we eat. The whole idea of “the companies made me eat it” is BS. We control our actions not the evil CKE empire. Yes it looks tasty, yes they market it that way- if they were to market cat food in the same way, would everyone eat that too? Come on now people, let’s start taking responsibility for ourselves and stop blaming the handsome fit young man enjoying the obscene mammoth burger for our lack of self control.

We’re all for taking control and responsibility for our own health (That’s what this blog is all about!), and we agree that innocent victim and evil corporate empire is an absurd representation of the situation. At the same time, we dislike shady, tricky, misleading, dishonest (did I miss anything?) marketing schemes. Carl Jr.’s ad campaign double-dog dares its target audience (which we’ll leave for others to dissect) to stick it to the “Man,” who is, by all estimation, a convenient amalgam of the medical establishment and every health advocate, representative and family physician they encounter. “Talk to the finger, doc! Real men don’t think about their health!” Gee, there’s an inspiring example.

We understand it’s free will at work here and that folks sometimes indulge for the sake of taste or lack of time, airport options, etc. But, let’s look at the real message. Clearly, the ad emphasis isn’t on enjoying their monstrosity burger as an occasional indulgence. Indulgence – the concept, even the very word screams “wuss” in this ad paradigm. “Indulgence (scoff)! This is lunch.”

Here’s the rub. These companies aren’t marketing their fare in the pattern of Baskin Robbins. We’re not talking “treat.” They’re out to sell their product as a “meal” and regular work day routine at that. There’s nothing random about the common image of workers riding together, grabbing their lunch through the drive through with hard hats still on. And the message translates. Life follows ads as much as the ads follow life, we’d argue. And it doesn’t bode well for those individuals down the road. But that part was missing, I believe, from the ad campaign.

Those guys’ choice? Ultimately, yes, but we tend to also find fault with the company that sold them on the daily habit and exploited the ignorance behind the choice. Selling self-destruction just doesn’t sit well with us. (And asking tax payers and/or insurance customers to pick up the tab later for these folks’ folly and these companies’ exploitive profit doesn’t exactly make our day either.)

And then there’s the issue of the seedlings. Happy meals, kids’ menus, cartoon contracts and Play Land (birthdays and play dates always welcome!). Start ‘em young. (Why does this strategy sound familiar?) Sure, blame the parents. We do. Yet, the same argument above holds. Only in this case, it’s the ruin of children’s health that brings in the profit. These kids see that it’s “their” restaurant, their colorfully boxed meal, their accompanying little toy prize, etc. Why, how generous of the corporation to be so thoughtful! Oh, and well-intentioned parents out there: be prepared for the guilt trips if you choose to blow off Ronald and his gang. The ads are careful to illustrate that loving, fun moms and dads take their kids to McDonalds. What’s wrong with you? (O.K., the seedling issue really brings out the fist-shaking curmudgeon in us. We’ll take a breath and back away from the soap box now.)

That all said, we get it that we all make our own choices. And we’re not about letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Avid apples know that we cherish our sensible vices. What constitutes a sensible vice differs from person to person based on what people truly enjoy, what enhances their subjective sense of quality of life. Sure, we aren’t about to advise anyone to make fast food one of those, but that’s our perspective.

Admittedly, it’s hard to find decent studies about the health effects of an occasional fast food indulgence. There are simply too many variables: what kind of fast food, how much, how often, what the rest of the diet is like, how much exercise, etc., etc. A few studies and more informal experiments (ala “Super Size Me”) have analyzed physiological changes related to fast food consumption over a month’s period, and they aren’t too pretty (increasing blood pressure increase, building insulin resistance, abdominal fat gain, etc.).

One big beef of ours (pardon the pun) is the carb load in these meals. The white bread bun, the acrylamide-laced fries, the mammoth sodas… Can you feel your insulin rising just thinking about it? Clearly, leaving those elements off the table, as some readers said they do, makes a big difference. As for fat? Yes, we’re friends to fats, including the saturated crowd. But 1400 calories and 107 grams of fat in one sandwich seems like a waste of a day’s eating to us.

And what are you really getting with that 1400 calories? Not much in terms of nutrients. A heck of a disproportion in terms of omega ratio. Yikes. (Carl Jr. better be popping them fish pills.) Sodium galore and MSG to boot. Preservatives none of us can pronounce and few of us want to imagine, let alone see in action. (But in case you do, here’s the link to the infamous jar experiment from Super Size Me.)

Each of us makes compromises every day, and as prevalent as fast food is in our society, it’s bound to figure into the picture for many of us. At the end of the day, it’s all about informed choices. And as excessive as fast food ad campaigns might be getting these days, at least there’s more information out there about the foods themselves than there was ten or twenty years ago.
And, gee, it was those crazy health advocates who applied the pressure that eventually resorted in their disclosure! Too bad, Carl.

brainware3000, VirtualErn, soundfromwayout Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

Carl’s Jr.: ‘Feel Good About Being Fat’

How to Eat More Chocolate and Drink More Wine Every Day

They Did It! A 134-lb hamburger has been constructed! (I hope you can sense the sarcasm.)

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