Moralizing Against McDonald's

Steve Chapman

5/22/2011 12:01:00 AM - Steve Chapman

Now that Osama bin Laden is dead, we can turn our attention to another remorseless enemy who for years has sown death and destruction among blameless innocents. I refer, of course, to Ronald McDonald.

The McDonald's mascot may qualify as one of the more annoying characters on the planet. But to his credit, he doesn't compound his unappealing personality by bossing you around. In that respect, he is far less objectionable than the people who make a fetish of finding him objectionable.

Last week, they took out ads in several newspapers blaming the clown for childhood obesity and demanding that McDonald's "stop marketing junk food to kids." The signers range from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, an anti-meat group that the American Medical Association has accused of "perverting medical science," to alternative-healing huckster Andrew Weil.

The general rule of critics is that McDonald's can do nothing right. Some years ago, they insisted that the company get rid of the beef tallow in which it cooked French fries. It did so, in favor of a supposedly healthier oil containing trans fats. A few years later, the activists demanded that it abandon trans fats, which it soon did.

How much credit did it get for those changes? Not much. The class of people who detested McDonald's went right on detesting it.

These ads are part of a larger campaign against everything McDonald's represents. Were the company to retire Ronald McDonald, its enemies would step up their calls for an end to Happy Meals. Get rid of Happy Meals, and they would demand that McDonald's thoroughly revamp its menu to incorporate their superior notions of nutrition.

Ultimately, the only way to please the critics is to become something unrecognizable. Or, better yet, disappear from the planet. New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman, who is to sanctimony what Saudi Arabia is to oil, believes "anything that discourages people from eating at McDonald's could be seen as wonderful."

Wonderful, that is, to enlightened souls who avoid it at all costs. But it's clear that McDonald's comes much closer to what paying consumers actually want than what its detractors prefer. It has 32,000 restaurants, serving 64 million people a day. Last year, it had revenues of $24 billion, more than the gross domestic product of some countries.

The food moralists imagine that McDonald's marketing magic renders its targets helpless to resist. Ronald McDonald might as well be rounding up kids at gunpoint and forcing them to choke down burgers and fries.

But children young enough to be seduced by Ronald McDonald or Happy Meals rarely visit restaurants without parents. These adults are free agents experienced at saying "no" to protect the interests of their sometimes ungrateful offspring.

Parents who dislike McDonald's sales tactics have a wealth of dining alternatives. And anyone who wants a low-fat, low-calorie meal can easily find it underneath the Golden Arches: Health magazine ranks McDonald's among the 10 healthiest fast-food restaurants.

It may be argued that many parents are too weak or ignorant to make sound decisions about the food their kids eat. If so, McDonald's and its unstoppable brainwashing machine could vanish tomorrow without making the slightest difference in obesity or other diet-related ailments.

People don't like cheap, tasty, high-calorie fare because McDonald's offers it. McDonald's offers it because people like it. In McDonald's absence, patrons would seek it out at other fast-food places, sit-down establishments or grocery stores.

We live in an age of inexpensive, abundant food carefully designed to please the mass palate. Most of us, recalling the scarcity, dietary monotony and starvation that afflicted our ancestors for hundreds of millennia, count that as progress. But those determined to save human beings from their own alleged folly see it as catastrophic.

What is apparent is that the militant enemies of fast food would like it treated as a public health menace along the lines of tobacco. They want broad measures to restrict, discourage and punish the companies that sell it.

Ronald McDonald is merely a convenient symbol. Their true target is a capitalist economy that gives companies far too much latitude in appealing to customers and allows government far too little control over our food choices.

The idea of using government power to dictate what we eat will strike many Americans as a gross intrusion on personal freedom. But McDonald's enemies? They're lovin' it.