Analysis (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
People might think of fast food as a benign convenience of modern times. The food is good, cheap, plentiful, easily accessible, filling, and the restaurants are clean. What could be wrong? Reading Eric Schlosser’s groundbreaking study Fast Food Nation, one learns that just about everything is. Schlosser uncovers a history of corruption, greed, and disregard for the welfare of workers and customers in franchises such as McDonald’s, Burger King, and Jack in the Box, to name a few. His study takes on the industry from all angles, uncovering a bloated business empire grown insensitive to anything but the bottom line, and he discusses all of this in an effectively quiet, informative way without overwhelming the reader with forced rhetoric. Since the fast food industry is such an omnipresent force in people’s lives, not only in the United States but, increasingly, all across the globe, Schlosser’s study is a timely exposé revealing a highly manipulative industry motivated by greed and a Faustian urge for world domination of the market.
The modern history of fast food began in the 1950’s in Southern California, the era and place that also produced Disneyland and the nation’s first freeways. Obliged to alter their architecture to suit the whim of the automobile driver, owners of early diners and hot dog stands had to find ways to attract customers by using bellhops and flashy neon signs. Frustrated with the extra expenses of easily stolen items such as silverwear and dishes, the brothers Richard and “Mac” McDonald hit upon a way to simplify the whole process of serving burgers by using assembly line techniques, and Ray A. Kroc persuaded the McDonald brothers to allow him to franchise the restaurant across the country. Kroc viewed business with an almost Darwinian ferocity, calling it “rat eat rat, dog eat dog. I’ll kill ’em, and I’m going to kill ’em before they kill me.” What was once a bewildering array of different companies boiled down to the successful few that survived and spread, and they succeeded largely through marketing and by various aggressive techniques for maximizing profits. McDonald’s shared with the Disney company a strategy of appealing to children first, who would then nag their parents into bringing them to the restaurants. Adults would then spend the rest of their lives with a favorable opinion of a restaurant inculcated in them when they lacked any critical ability to distinguish advertisements from regular programming on television.
In the same vein as other important studies of multinational companies, such as Anne Klein’s No Logo (2001), Fast Food Nation is very concerned with the effects of marketing. These books seek to deprogram those susceptible to advertising’s claims, demystifying logos and brands that have developed a cumulative force over the years. Schlosser focuses specifically on the techniques that McDonald’s uses to market Happy Meals to children. Psychologists have determined that children often dream of round-shaped animals, so characters such as Disney creatures, Barney the dinosaur, and those found in McDonaldland(Mayor McCheese, for example) all cater to these dreams. Schlosser unearths confidential documents in which McDonald’s executives discuss how all of their advertising should emphasize the corporation as a “trusted friend,” even though warnings on the memos against unauthorized use betrays a more paranoid relationship between the company and the customer. Moreover, McDonald’s pours so much money into advertising, expanding its franchise across the United States, that its message becomes ubiquitous and increasingly hard to ignore. In an interview, Schlosser says that he associates McDonald’s with the Kremlin because of the way the chain consistently refuses to answer his calls and e-mails. Like the Kremlin, they also know how to dispense propaganda to maintain power.
Schlosser also uncovers a long history of purposeful disenfranchisement of workers. The industry relies mainly upon the unskilled labor of teenagers and government kickbacks for “training” these workers in dead-end jobs. To maintain their profits, McDonald’s has consistently lobbied to keep the minimum wage low, and they have also made sure that unions cannot survive in a McDonald’s, even if they must close down the restaurant and open another down the street. A typical employee retains his or her job for about four months, about the same length of time as those who work in sweatshops. Additionally, there are patterns of theft from...
(The entire section is 1857 words.)
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Although the setting moves from the East Coast to the West Coast (and many places in between), Schlosser anchors his story in Colorado, focusing on the environment around the city of Colorado Springs. He does this to personalize his findings to a specific town and its suburbs. While in Colorado Springs, Schlosser demonstrates how the food chains have affected the local youth, the local culture, and the economy of the small town.
However, Schlosser spends a good deal of time on the road, in places like Los Angeles, California, where the idea of fast food restaurants began. He also visits both small and large cattle ranches in the West. In the Midwest, the author explores large slaughterhouses. Later, he works his way into the pristine and otherworldly corporate headquarters of McDonald’s, located in Oak Brook, Illinois. On the East Coast, Schlosser investigates the huge business of crafting chemicals to replicate artificial flavors. In the final chapters, Schlosser reports from Greece, South Africa, Russia, Asia, and Europe, where fast food chains have been both extremely well received (in China people lined the streets waiting for a taste of a Big Mac) and protested against, even bombed.
But the true setting of this story is the fast food restaurants themselves, where Schlosser explores the food that is served and the people who work behind the counters.
Ideas for Group Discussions
1. Try to come up with as many benefits as you can of eating at fast food restaurants. Once you have created your list, try to determine if you think this outweighs the detriments to your health that Schlosser proposes.
2. Discuss which part of Fast Food Nation makes you want to make a change in your eating habits?
3. How does your community compare with Colorado Springs as Schlosser describes it?
4. Do you think the illegal immigrants who work in the meatpacking industry should have the right to better benefits?
5. Ask a group of your classmates to make a list at home of all the foods in their kitchens that have artificial flavors added to them. Ask them to bring the lists to school and share their findings. Does this make you think any differently about the foods you eat?
6. Besides the cost to people’s health, what is some of the harm fast food restaurants are causing the environment, the culture, or the economy, according to Schlosser?
Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Ask some classmates to help you take a survey in your school cafeteria concerning how many times a week (or month) students eat at fast food restaurants. How many of them work at fast food restaurants, for how many hours, and at what hourly wage? Try to get your findings published in your school newspaper along with a brief summary (and your commentary) about Schlosser’s book.
2. Arrange an interview with a fast food restaurant manager. Let him or her know that you want to discuss the nutritional values of the food the restaurant serves. Ask about the ingredients that go into the milkshakes, the sugar content of the restaurant’s food, and the kind of fat the fries are cooked in? Then take that information and...
(The entire section is 235 words.)
One of the main focuses in Schlosser’s book is the effect of fast food on children, especially the advertising that is used to lure children into the restaurants. Dan Acuff, along with Robert H. Reiher, has written What Kids Buy and Why: The Psychology of Marketing to Kids (1997), which provides an insider view and deeper understanding of how advertising affects children.
George Ritzer wrote The McDonaldization of Society: An Investigation Into the Changing Character of Contemporary Social Life (1996), which influenced some of Schlosser’s writing. For more in-depth reporting on the major fast food restaurants, this is a good book.
Schlosser’s book is often compared to an earlier work that...
(The entire section is 262 words.)