We shall presently meditate on the composition of the Chicken McNugget.
We all have our suspicions, so let your imagination run away with you. Beaks? Feathers? “Pink slime?” Manure? Elmer’s Glue? Ground glass? Ebola? As we shall see, the truth is far less alarming than we are prepared to believe, because we are prepared to believe almost anything about individuals or institutions we’ve been given permission by our communities to despise.
Ask Obama. Or Jews. Or Phi Kappa Psi.
Mind you, there are many reasons actually to admire McDonald’s. Global success. Job creation. Convenience. Fries. Value. Consistency. Fries. Ronald McDonald House. Fries. Fries.
But there is a gathering argument for seeing the company as a Golden Arch-villain: marketing to children, destroying rainforest, cultural McImperialism, and most of all, poisoning the world with exactly what the world wants.
You can put out all the brochures you want about a healthy lifestyle and label menus to a fare-thee-well; quarterly growth still hinges on more fat, sodium and sugar per capita. Period. And because of the low cost per calorie consumed there, the biggest problems reside with the society’s poorest and most vulnerable.
Yes, the damage is self-inflicted; nobody is forced into McD’s. We go because in one way or another we’re lovin’ it. But bear in mind the legal concept of “attractive hazard.”
If you have a pool surrounded by only a four-foot fence, and a kid climbs over the fence and drowns, you the pool owner are liable. Ergo, if there is an epidemic of obesity and Type II diabetes, the fast-food industry cannot pretend to be innocent. A dollar for a double cheeseburger? That’s a very low pool fence. I’ll take three, please.
‘Til this moment in history, McDonald’s has largely been able to achieve sustained growth in spite of the collateral damage of mass yumminess. But now it is buffeted by three megatrends:
1) Actual widespread health consequences.
2) General health and food-quality consciousness has percolated up from policy analysts and public-interest groups to the marketplace. Ordinary people are now thinking about antibiotics and trans fats. You can now buy, I swear to God, organic gummy bears. And gluten free!
3) The Relationship Era. Everything you do, or don’t do, as a company reflects on your brand as much as the intrinsic qualities of your goods or services. Abercrombie’s and Lululemon’s and American Apparel’s clothes are exactly as good as they were 3 years ago, but high-profile management douchebaggery has catastrophically harmed the businesses.
For the fast-food, snack food, soft-drink and confection industries, obviously, this is a structural problem. They preach moderation, but come on. Hostess’s share prices benefit from Ding Dong immoderation. Corporate growth depends and has always depended on them selling more to every human than it is healthful for the human to consume. Today, the health of the world is in direct conflict with the fiduciary imperatives of Wall Street and something has to give; tectonic changes are in store. The problem is not merely structural but now existential.
In short: a moment of truth.
How this resolves, as they say, only time can tell. But maybe some clues reside in a secondary consequence of growing mistrust. In such circumstances, brands are vulnerable not only to awkward truths but also to rumors, exaggerations and lies, which fly around social media and live perpetually on Google, because once the world decides you are a bad actor, it will believe anything that validates their suspicion and contempt.
Like that you were born in Kenya. Or make matzoh with Gentile baby blood. Or die-cut McNuggets out of ground-up chicken guts.
That is exactly what McDonald’s has been facing. Vague suspicions morphing into social-media broadsides, such as this, this and -- nausea alert -- this. (Of course, the meme lords taketh away, but they giveth as well. McDonald’s was probably the net beneficiary of this YouTube clip, undoubtedly the greatest security-cam video ever, and certainly profited handsomely from the worst street rap ever recorded.)
One obvious solution for taking on the haters would be to go to the very social media where this all lives. Equally obvious is that McDonald’s has been catastrophically terrible at that strategy, as we recall from the mind-boggling “#McDStories” fiasco, when the company solicited tweets about real-life McDonald’s experiences and was inundated with repulsive horror stories for all to see and share.
Still, Oak Brook summoned the courage for one more go at the social sphere, this time the YouTubeverse. Instead of seeking civilian videos, it created its own to document the actual production of McNuggets (and, in subsequent videos other menu items, such as the McRib). The host for these docu-debunkings is Grant Imahara, until recently a star of the hit cable series “Mythbusters.” That’s a show devoted to putting fanciful notions or common perceptions to the test, and either confirming them or proving them false. (For instance, no razor-brimmed hat such as Odd Job’s could decapitate a marble statue, no matter what you saw in “Goldfinger.”)
Sure enough, Imahara confronts a plant supervisor with the public’s worst imagination of nuggetization: “You have this bin of chicken…you put it in a grinder and you grind ‘em up and --- pppppfft – you pour that into a mold and that’s what’s used to make a chicken McNugget.”
“That’s not true,” the supervisor says, and over the next seven minutes we get to see the whole process: chickens gutted and deboned (and de-beaked, and de-footitated), dark meat and most skin removed, then ground, marinated with salt, spices, “leavening agents” and preservatives, battered, breaded, half-fried and flash frozen. No pink slime.
“There’s no mystery,” Imahara says. “I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”
“Now,” he adds, “I know you have a lot of questions” -- and he’s right. What about antibiotics? What is the provenance of the “leavening agents?” I’d read that they are derived from petrochemicals. And there’s still all that salt and fat. Nonetheless,, measured against our most repulsive guesses, the video is pretty persuasive, all in all. In a week’s time, the series has racked up 10 million views.
Mind you, that doesn’t end the story. For one thing, academic research is piling up that suggests the very process of using facts to debunk rumors and myths has the effect of reinforcing the misinformation. Just look at the dangerous and ignorant Jenny McCarthy, and her moronic crusade against MMR vaccines. In that case, one now disgraced ex-doctor linked vaccine preservatives to autism with fraudulent -- i.e., invented -- data, and 15 years later his lie continues to energize the cult of lethal idiocy that is the anti-vaccine movement. And American children die of childhood diseases that had been all but eradicated.
The attempt to fight rumor with fact will not conquer blind zealotry. On the other hand, it does demonstrate that McDonald’s is capable of not merely paying lip service to transparency, but embracing it. After all, the nugget factory we visit is nobody’s idea of a kitchen. They could just as well be making car parts in that place. Compared to those ridiculous bucolic farms that McDonald’s ads have shown us over the years, suggesting a loving hand-picked harvest, these videos amount practically to a confession. And that’s a big step…one that may lead to ultimately reckoning with the structural problem described above.
Until then, the one big unanswered question is this: What did the producers of “Mythbusters” say when they found out that Imahara was pimping out their well-earned trust to shill for McDonald’s? Truth be told, that was slimy.