Would you like to ‘go large?’ ‘Super Size Me’ and McDonald’s a decade on

super-size-meHere’s an old joke. A man walks into a McDonald’s…

He order a quarter pounder with cheese meal.

Before he has time to lay a $10 note on the table, the fresh-eyed young lady behind the counter asks: “Would you like to ‘go large?”

Doesn’t she just mean ‘super size’? he wonders to himself. Sensibly, he declines the upgrade.

A minute late, his meal is on a tray in front of him…

It’s just over 10 years since Morgan Spurlock made Super Size Me (the film was released in September 2004), a low-budget documentary about the fast food industry, where he nearly killed himself eating a McDonald’s meal three times a day for a month, and where he forced himself to ‘super-size’ his meal whenever it was offered.

I watched Super Size Me for the first time recently (it aired late one night) and thought it a very engaging, thought-provoking and entertaining film, if you can stomach watching a young bloke quickly push his previously fit and healthy body toward’s ruination to prove a point about the evils of the fast food industry.

The film was made for just $65,000 and grossed almost $12 million. Made two year’s after Michael Moore’s groundbreaking Bowling for Columbine, it cemented documentary film-making as a mainstream film genre, earned an Academy Award Nomination and dozens of other film prizes.

Anyone who remembers the film will remember that famously gross scene, when Spurlock eats a double quarter-pounder supersize meal about the size of his car steering wheel and then, soon after, vomits it all up out the window of his car.

Morgan Spurlock: My arms… I feel like I’ve got some McSweats goin’. My arms got the McTwitches going in here from all the sugar that’s going in my body right now. I’m feeling a little McCrazy.

Over the course of the film Spurlock develops numerous medical conditions – high cholesterol, strange bodily sensations, depression and finally fast food addiction with his team of doctors and specialists flabbergasted at the decline of his health.

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Not only did Spurlock show how unhealthy McDonald’s food is – very high in fat, salt and sugar – but also how the fast food industry had gained control of America’s lucrative high school lunch menus and how it spends billions of marketing dollars every year to virtually brainwash young kids into consuming its products via its catchy advertising, bright colours and cheap meals.

Morgan Spurlock: In 2001, on direct media advertising…McDonald’s spent US$1.4 bn worldwide…[By comparison] In its peak year the [US] Five-a-Day Vegetable Campaigns total advertising budget in all media was a lowly $2m.

At the end of the film, and thankfully not dead, Spurlock declares a victory of sorts with McDonald’s announcing an end to its super size offer.

Or has it? It was me who ordered that McDonalds meal. Was there anything really different in principle (yes the quantities may be a little smaller) between “going large” and super-sizing’?

Over the years some things have changed. McDonald’s has introduced healthier menu items like salads, water and yoghurts, while in 2012 it started including kilojoule labelling in all its restaurants.

But deep down, it’s the same philosophy driving the company: greasy burgers, made cheap, sold in their millions.

If it had changed, the woman behind the counter would have asked if I wanted a salad or fries with my burger (as is a healthier option). Instead, she asked me: “Would I like to go large?”

Of course I am an adult and can make an educated choice, children are far more impressionable and McDonald’s is fighting harder than ever for it’s new generation of customers.

It continues to promote its ‘Happy Meals‘ complete with toys and popular movie tie-ins. (In its PR spin it makes the ridiculous claim that toys are “a response to the desire of parents for their child’s Mcdonald’s experience to be a fun and special occasion”.)

McDonald’s also continues to sponsor local youth sports events including athletics, rugby league, union, AFL, soccer and netball.

In Melbourne, my home town, McDonald’s has kept its restaurant contract with the government’s Royal Children’s Hospital and will also have a restaurant in the new Monash Hospital, when it opens in 2017.

It also has the backing of the recently appointed Labor Victorian government with premier Daniel Andrews – a former health minister no less – defending the company from suggestions that its hospitals should perhaps consider a healthier food offering.

Mr Andrews told people – including parents, doctors and nutritionists – to “get over themselves” and said McDonald’s at the children’s hospital was “here to stay”.

McDonald’s will argue that it gives millions of dollars to sports programs, children’s charities and community events and that it creates jobs, which is true.

But what it gets back is billions of dollars in revenue –  the fast food giant has about 20 per cent of the $17 billion Australian market – and millions of new customers, many of whom are young and impressionable.

This in a country with one of he highest rates of obesity in the world – double what it was 20 years – it seems we are losing far more than we are gaining.

As for the end to McDonald’s super sizing, which Morgan Spurlock proclaimed a decade ago was a direct result of the popularity of his film, it seems a pretty hollow victory now.

(Admission: the author does occasionally eat fast food, including McDonald’s. I usually wish I hadn’t).

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Greed is not good: Our dangerous love affair with American-style capitalism

capitalism_a_love_story_xlgIn one of the early scenes of Michael Moore’s scathing 2009 documentary on free market corporate greed “Capitalism: A Love Story”, the filmmaker interviews a farmer and his wife, who are having their property repossessed.

It’s recurring image in the film, the sheriff knocks on the door, working class people are thrown out onto the street with their furniture, and the house is boarded up, later to be sold for a quarter of the price.

The farmer, his life packed into the back of a van, says he tried everything “except robbing a bank” to save his farm.

“I’m thinking about doing that. It’s one way someone can get their money back. They did it to me. I don’t know why I can’t do it to them,” he says.

As the camera pans back over the abandoned farm buildings, Moore narrates:

“This is the capitalism of taking and giving…mostly taking.”

Later, Moore questions how capitalism allows commercial airlines to pay pilots less than $20,000 a year forcing them take second jobs or apply for food stamps.

To which he answers: “I guess that’s the point of capitalism, it let’s you get away with anything.”

Australian-style capitalism

That’s the exact sentiment I felt when reading about the multi-million dollar handouts to executives at the scandal-ridden Commonwealth Bank financial planning division. People like retiring CBA banking executive Grahame Petersen (total pay $5.6 million), who oversaw the division responsible for the systematic destruction of customer retirement savings through investment in risky products recommended by the bank’s licensed financial planners in return for millions of dollars in commissions.

I thought that the retirees who had lost everything to this free market system that rewarded greed and deception could be forgiven from thinking about doing something similar to the American farmer: walking into a Commonwealth Bank branch and “asking for their money back”.

This is something Michael Moore does in the documentary in his typical sardonic style, walking up to the head office of Goldman Sachs in New York to perform a citizen’s arrest of chairman Lloyd Blankfein (2013 annual salary: US$23 million), after accusing the bank of “stealing’ US$170 billion of American taxpayer’s money to save it from collapse. Later he wraps police crime scene tape around the whole building.

henry paulsonAs Moore explains in the film, the bail out of the banks after the collapse of Lehman Brothers that sparked the Global Financial Crisis, was orchestrated by former Goldman Sachs CEO Henry ‘Hank’ Paulson (one of 25 people Time magazine blames for the crisis happening in the first place).

The then US Treasury Secretary cut a backroom deal that gave the banks $700 billion of US taxpayers money to keep them afloat. Paulson was apparently unaware of the irony that he had broken the basic law of capitalism – that you don’t ask the government for help, you either sink or swim on your own.

It seems this form of failed American style free-market capitalism – so brilliantly depicted in Moore’s film – is what the current Australian government wishes to mimic with its plans to increase the cost of car fuel, doctor’s visits and university education while Australia’s poorest paid workers earns a minimum wage that is the lowest in history relative to average full-time pay (currently $640.90 a week, or $16.87 an hour).

The 3% pay rise they got this year was more than double what the The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry – the powerful lobbying body, which represents big business, wanted. It suggested a 1.25% pay rise, less than half the projected cost-of-living increase of 2.7%.

Perhaps Treasurer Joe Hockey – a man who proves himself time and time again to be completely out of touch with most Australians – and his investment banking advisors should watch Moore’s documentary to see the longer term outcome of such policies in the US before and after the GFC: hundreds of thousands of job lay-offs, the poorest people unable to afford basic health care, the boarding up of whole suburbs and ruination of cities like Detroit and Cleveland.

Of course, there is also a message of hope at the end of Capitalism: A Love Story as Moore documents the fight back by ordinary Americans against the systemic free market failure (this appears to be happening in Australia too, at least in political opinion polls)

He tells the story of the employees of Chicago Republic Window and Door factory, who, having been told they will lose their jobs in three days time without being paid their wages lock themselves inside refusing to leave until they get what is theirs. The local community rallies around them providing food and encouragement. Then there’s the story of the Warren Evans, Sheriff of Wayne County, Detroit who decides to stop all home foreclosures, when he realises the hypocrisy of what is happening to working class homeowners after the US$700 billion hand-out to the banks.

More widely, Moore reports of how Barack Obama’s form of democratic socialism has been embraced by young American voters (33%), with only 37% favouring capitalism and the rest undecided.

As explained by Vermont independent senator Bernie Sanders, democratic socialism means “the function of government is to represent middle-income working people rather than just the wealthy or the powerful”.

He goes on to say that America “worships greed”

“We put on the front cover of magazines guys who have made  billions of dollars, rather than the cops, fireman, policeman and nurses, who are doing so much in the lives of people. We have to change our value system.”

Sound familiar?

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You can watch the whole documenatry ‘Capitalism: A Love Story’ for free on YouTube.