In 1996, I desperately wanted to eat an Arch Deluxe.
For those of you who don't remember the few months it was available before becoming the biggest fast food flop of all time, the Arch Deluxe was McDonald's attempt to be taken seriously. This was a sandwich for adults, complete with a potato bun and new secret sauce. According to its ads, it was "the burger with the grown-up taste."
But I didn't want to get one to make me more mature. I wanted to get one because Michael Jordan told me to.
If you don't remember the sandwich, at the very least you should remember the basketball superstar's face next to nearly everything McDonald's released during that period of time. It was the perfect corporate relationship: the world's biggest sports star and the world's biggest fast food franchise. And if you watch TV today, you'll notice that the amount of celebrities shilling for fast food has only grown.
Whether it's the Super Bowl, the NBA playoffs, or Sunday night's Game 7 overtime win for the L.A. Kings, viewers tuning in get a generous helping of sports players offering dining recommendations. Sometimes it's LeBron James and Dwight Howard telling people to eat at McDonald's, other times it's Peyton Manning delivering pizzas for Papa John's. But the difference between today and back when Michael Jordan played H-O-R-S-E with Larry Bird is our understanding of how food ads work.
We've already learned that Big Food specifically targets children, but now we also know they're responsible for rising obesity rates in black and Latino youth.
A recent piece in Al Jazeera points out how fast/junk food corporations have been targeting youth culture in poorer areas, and celebrity sponsorship is just one small area of their attack. They also rely on more subtle methods like focused social media branding and sponsoring gospel music performances -- McDonald's has an entire series of promotions geared towards the black community called 365Black -- to get their message out to black and Latino youth.
To answer the question of whether or not this targeting is working, you need only look at the health stats:
While obesity among all young people has more than quadrupled over the past four decades -- from just 5 percent among 6-to-19-year-olds in the 1960s to 19.6 percent in 2008 -- rates among African-American and Latino youth have outpaced those of white youth. The statistics are most alarming for African-American teenage girls: Among those ages 12 to 19, nearly 1 in 3 were obese in 2008, the highest prevalence by age, gender, race or ethnicity.
The Al Jazeera piece also quotes a 2011 study that found African-American youths see 80 to 90 percent more ads for sugary drinks than white children do. One reason that's the case is because of the insidious "pouring rights" contract that schools sign with sponsors.
"Pouring rights" work like so: A school signs a contract with a beverage corporation (Coke or Pepsi, generally) which gives them some extra spending money, as long as the school only serves their product. Sports arenas and theme parks generally work the same way; it's why it's tough to find both a Coke and Pepsi at a sporting event. The thing is, the schools that sign the contract are the ones who need the money the most. And those schools generally don't have yearbooks full of white faces. It's a deal with the devil that schools in lower-income districts -- which, in America, means black or Latino neighborhoods -- must sign.
While something like "pouring rights" is different from a sports star getting paid a bunch of money to stand next to a burger, it's in the same family. Both devices are used to get people to buy the product, and in most cases their targets are black and Latino youth. Which is why it's time for celebrities to end their relationship with fast/junk food corporations.
The decision that sports figures and celebrities make when signing on the dotted line to be part of a huge ad campaign is easy to understand. People are giving them tons of money for a few hours of work. And if they don't sign, well, the corporation just moves onto the next biggest celebrity. But for too long have celebrities gotten away with simply cashing checks with no penalties. The effect that fast/junk food has the general public, especially children, is known. They need to be held accountable for their decisions.
If a person signs a contract with a fast food corporation, they are aligning themselves with a shameful industry. They're not only selling their likeness, they're also selling out the future health of black and Latino children.
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