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Fast food chains are deceiving you — and you’re buying it

How celebrity endorsements mask the problematic aspects of the fast food industry
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TimBiebs are just one example of the confusing partnerships between food franchises and celebrities. COURTESY OF TIM HORTONS
TimBiebs are just one example of the confusing partnerships between food franchises and celebrities. COURTESY OF TIM HORTONS

Last fall, McDonald’s launched a partnership with famous rapper Travis Scott. For a limited time, the franchise’s customers were offered Scott’s go-to order: a Quarter Pounder with Cheese with bacon and lettuce, medium fries, barbecue sauce, and a large Sprite. The launch was accompanied by the release of merchandise featuring Travis Scott and the McDonald’s-related imagery.

At first thought, the partnership might seem innovative. However, it was promptly followed by a series of collaborations between the franchise and other famous figures like Saweetie, J Balvin, BTS, and Mariah Carey, whose campaign images bizarrely featured an ocean.

Let’s face it; McDonald’s is simply rebranding current menu items with these promotions. They’re not offering consumers anything new. But we can’t blame only one franchise for the bizarre phenomenon of celebrity promotion.

Using public faces to promote food is nothing new. Take Super Bowl commercials, for instance. After starting with supermodel Cindy Crawford in 1992, Pepsi gained a reputation of collaborating with famous celebrities to produce iconic advertisements. Their collaborations have included Cardi B, P!nk, and Enrique Iglesias.

Though television commercials are effective in promoting collaborations, it can be argued that the platform is becoming dated. Instead, like with most trends we’re currently witnessing, promotion is moving to the internet. 

The relationship we have with celebrities has been fundamentally altered by social media. They are no longer mysterious figures that we connect with through mediums like magazines or movies. Instead, their social media presence offers us a genuine, less produced glimpse into their personal lives.

This is where food franchises come in. These collaborations are not only ways of obtaining products connected to your favourite celebrity — they also play a crucial part in establishing a parasocial connection with that celebrity. When you order Saweetie’s favourite meal, it’s almost like she’s a friend who’s recommending you try her usual order. 

Increased promotion through celebrity endorsements has come at the right time for the fast food industry. Recent years have seen a rise in ‘clean eating,’ a lifestyle which encourages people to consume primarily whole foods and limit their consumption of processed foods. Last year, the International Food Information Council’s Food & Health Survey found that 54 per cent of consumers cared more about the healthiness of their food than they did a decade ago. Additionally, 43 per cent of participants claimed to regularly diet. 

And then there’s the pandemic to consider. In its early days, there was a societal emphasis on purchasing from local businesses instead of large corporations so that employees of those small businesses could earn a living wage. Nevertheless, local businesses weren’t the only sector suffering; in February this year, Canada’s Labour Force Survey found that there were 319,000 fewer restaurant workers than there were a year prior.

But corporations are aware of their weaknesses, which is why they’re banking on their strengths; nostalgia, endorsement, and accessibility. Fast food chains have always been the antithesis of the high-end health food trends and of small businesses. To hide this reality, corporations use the excitement of beloved celebrities to override the rationality of their consumer base.

There’s no better example of this than the fact that, in the same month that McDonald’s BTS meal launched, their American workers were striking for an increase in minimum wage. Needless to say, there’s an incredibly insidious motivation behind using the appeal of celebrities to cash in at a time when their employees are perhaps the most vulnerable. 

So, despite any clever marketing, it’s clear that partnerships between celebrities and fast food corporations are nothing to celebrate. These collaborations are simply a reminder that we’re susceptible to heavy marketing and the promise of a new sauce to coat the same french fry.