Column: How McDonald’s Can Truly Be Modern and Progressive

In 1915, Polish immigrant, Nathan Handwerker, bought a hot dog stand in Coney Island and went about undercutting the boardwalk’s other restaurants by half. These five-cent sandwiches were so much cheaper than other offerings consumers were leery of their content. To counter this, Handwerker famously hired actors to wear lab coats and eat his hot dogs outside of his restaurant. The optics were clear: If we see doctors eating junk—it must not be bad.

Which helps explain why there are dozens of children’s hospitals across this country with McDonald’s restaurants in them. How can McDonald’s possibly be unhealthy if they’re operating where medical professionals (ahem) operate?!

Handwerker, of Nathan’s Famous, inadvertently became the founding father of fast-food myth-making: value, convenience and paid shills to make you feel better about the experience.

Enter former Obama adviser Robert Gibbs. The fast-food giant which boasts of feeding 69 million people daily announced this week they’ve hired the former White House press secretary as McDonald’s global chief communications officer. This is part of the burger chain’s rebranding effort as a “modern progressive burger company.”

Yes, McDonald’s, home of the McJob and symbol of America’s vast McFood Deserts has decided to use the term “modern progressive” to describe their aspirational self. If you’re a corporatese connoisseur, McDonald’s own webcast featuring its latest CEO, Steve Easterbrook, serves up plenty with the company’s new plan to “unlock growth.” Ideas include phrases like “global turnaround,” “customer centric” and of course “millennials.”

“That’s how we’ll continue to deliver our unique surround sound of positivity,” says Easterbrook.

All right, you additive-heavy, over-processed, low-fiber, multinational mega-corporation, I’ll bite. Your “surround sound of positivity” has by some estimates a 60 to a 150 percent turnover rate in your workforce and your ingredients list reads like a cat walked across a keyboard (see: Dimethylpolysiloxane). Silicon-based food served with shiny plastic toys and a working poor forced smile seems slightly, well, phony. As does dubbing yourself modern and progressive. Were clean bathrooms and consistency not millennial-centric enough?

When I think modern progressive burger company—I think Portlandia sketch. Not the salads-have-more-calories-than-the-burgers restaurant genre. McDonald’s as modern and progressive makes me think McPropaganda.

To me, McDonald’s is already the reality of modernity. It’s homogenized, overly-engineered pseudo-food defended as joyful by an army of dedicated publicists; a ubiquitous, soulless, hyper-hyped omnipresent trademark where workers are seen as natural resources to be processed at a respectable profit. McDonald’s is the go-to example of the top micro-percentage enjoying the spoils of the majority’s blood, sweat and tears. In 2011 the company paid then-CEO Jim Skinner $8.75 million in total compensation. A McDonald’s cashier would have to work a million hours at $8.75 ($1.50 above the federal minimum wage) to make that. It’s very dystopian; what decades of supply-side union-busting and corporations’ rights crusades have wrought.

In the ‘70s, then Chairman of the Board Ray Kroc notoriously donated several hundred thousand dollars to the Nixon re-election campaign hoping to land a provision in the minimum wage law that would allow for a lower minimum for teenagers. (By 2010 fewer than 30 percent of fast food workers are teenagers. The average age is 29 with more than a quarter raising a child.) More recently McDonald’s gave its workers in the U.S. a paltry one-dollar raise after years of successfully lobbying against a federal minimum wage increase that would have been much more.

And now they want me to think they’re modern and progressive because Robert Gibbs is on their payroll?

I have one question: Is he going to wear a lab coat?

If McDonald’s wants me to see them as modern progressive in their market saturation, they can take proper steps to retain their employees. They can stop using junk science to mitigate their role in the obesity epidemic. And they can stop serving items with “inert ingredients” that otherwise meet no definition of food. Basically, stop being McDonald’s and actually be a modern progressive burger company.

@tinadupuy