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McDonald's exploitative roots go deep

Naa Oyo A. Kwate, Ph.D.
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I’m going to go ahead and guess that when McDonald’s claims it is “deeply rooted” in the Black community, it doesn’t mean that it disproportionately targets Black audiences.

Right? Seeing as how that would be contrary to the company’s self-portrait as a kind and culturally authentic institution. 

Black kids inundated with marketing

Sure, we know that in many U.S. cities, fast food restaurants are most often located in Black neighborhoods, and this is not due to income. And it’s true that schools that have more Black students or are located in Black neighborhoods are more likely to have fast food restaurants nearby.

And yes, on television, African American prime-time shows have 60 percent more food commercials, and the ads on many children’s programs feature Black characters selling convenience and fast foods.

If you compare the numbers of food and beverage ads on different channels, 63 percent are on Black Entertainment Television (BET), compared to 32 percent on the WB. Plus, BET has a lock on ads marketing fast food, with 66 percent of such ads, compared to only 34 percent on the WB. And, no surprise, industry leader McDonald’s is the top advertiser among those fast food commercials, with 30 percent of ads.

So, we know Black children face intense marketing of fast food in their neighborhoods, around their schools and on the television programming geared to them. 

But, surely that is not what McDonald’s means by being deeply rooted. 

Perhaps McDonald’s means to suggest that it is deeply rooted the way plants are.  For example, many native wildflowers have roots that tunnel several feet down, enabling them to draw up nutrients, and water especially, from deep below the ground surface.  This makes these plants robust, particularly in times of drought. In the same way, maybe McDonald’s means to suggest that it extracts what it needs (money, brand loyalty, and the like) from deep within the Black community, strengthening the company’s health.  But wait, that also kind of works against the whole McDonald’s-cum-community benefactor notion. 

Burger giant fronts online

Maybe there’s no way to know what McDonald’s means. 

Too bad the company’s “Black website” does not help make it clearer. It just announces that the company is “deeply rooted,” and leaves it at that.  Two years ago, the website had a page devoted to explaining the goal of That page is no longer, and the link simply takes you to the homepage. 

In 2011, the page stated: “At McDonald’s, we believe that African-American culture and achievement should be celebrated 365 days a year -- not just during Black History Month.” The page went on to claim the website was a place to “learn more about education, employment, career advancement and entrepreneurship opportunities,” and:

“Like the unique African Baobab tree, which nourishes its community with its leaves and fruit, McDonald’s has branched out to the African-American community nourishing it with valuable programs and opportunities.” 

Notice that McDonald’s did not say that it nourished the community with its food

Anyway, with the page having disappeared, website visitors are left to their own devices to figure out the goals behind the 365Black campaign. One thing is certain—a fundamental goal for the website is to promote McDonald’s as a company attuned to corporate responsibility, community empowerment and social uplift. associates the brand with African American culture and collective striving for social mobility and equality. And it creates positive associations for adult viewers. 

Need to attract Black youth? Throw a DJ contest!

Of course, McDonald’s cannot rely entirely on the positive regard of adults. It is critical that African American youth also see a halo of positivity around the golden arches. And McDonald’s does put a great deal of energy into attracting Black youth. 

One way the website targets youth is by showcasing promotions such as the “Flavor Battle,” a DJ contest. Apparently the Flavor Battle is an annual event, with DJs across the country competing for a prize. The top three DJs each “represent” a different McDonald's burger. 

Really, McDonald’s?  How tired. 

Maybe McDonald’s realizes the whole concept lacks imagination, because the Flavor Battle website barely has anything on it. You would think it would feature a large photo gallery, videos of the DJs in action, interviews, and more. But no. 

Since only a tiny percentage of Black youth will attend the event in person, the website is the only interaction they will have with the promotion. The fact that the website is so superficial suggests that McDonald’s just wants to have something up there -- anything that will register an association with hip-hop and a connection to the Black community. 

That whole “deep rootedness” thing. 

In 2012, McDonald’s had icons like Doug E Fresh proclaiming that the contest was “the biggest DJ battle in the world…presented to you by McDonald’s.”

In 2013, McDonald’s sent out tweets such as “#FlavorBattle finale 2night is going 2 be HOT! Just like the burgers being repped by the top 3 DJs. Watch it go down @!” 

See, kids? McDonald’s features legendary Black artists! McDonald’s uses urban lingo!  McDonald’s is down

It’s deeply rooted in the community. 

But if that’s true, doesn’t that mean it’s also deeply rooted in health outcomes like obesity? Deeply rooted in trading on the struggle for nutritionally dubious food? Deeply rooted in perpetuating inequality?  

Naa Oyo A. Kwate is Associate Professor in the departments of Human Ecology and Africana Studies at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.  She studies social determinants of African American health, including inequalities in neighborhood food environments.

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