Yesterday, Cora and I were driving home from the neighborhood food co-op where we bought local eggs, milk, and cheese in addition to a few other wholesome treats, when I heard her familiar cry from the backseat, “Look mommy, look!” I turned my head just in time to catch Ronald McDonald, larger than life, sitting on the roof of the local McDonald’s. Cora has no idea who he is yet, and I’m content to keep it that way for as long as possible. So, I responded, “Oh wow. That guy’s kinda creepy sitting up there, isn’t he?”
In the moment I wasn’t trying to teach her any specific lessons about nutrition or marketing, though that will certainly come later. But I definitiely didn’t want her to get excited about that guy. I was satisfied when she voiced agreement, “Yeah mom. That boy is scary.” I could tell she was just parroting me, but I didn’t care. I suppose I was channeling my inner Morgan Spurlock who, in Super Size Me (2004), suggested that he would punch his kids in the face whenever they drove by a fast food place. He was being sarcastic, of course, but I fully support his call for counter-balancing the efforts of food giants to occupy our children’s lunch boxes.
Spurlock’s comment was part of a conversation with a friend on research conducted by big tobacco that showed young smokers were likely to buy the same brand of cigarettes their parents smoked. Apparently, even stinky cancer sticks can serve as a Pavlovian conditioning tool, producing warm and fuzzy childhood memories. In this light, Spurlock’s entire film can be seen as a revolt against happy meals. I found it very effective as such when I showed it to Goerge and Rosa a few years ago. Sometimes the truth can really give you a belly ache.
I reluctantly drove past Ronald again to snap the photo above. It was then that Cora told me she liked the way the boy was waving to her as his arm blew in the breeze. For her, seeing that brightly colored giant smiling down from on top of the building was really just a cool visual experience. An example of how interventions in the landscape – whether created for the purpose of fine art or advertising, can make the familiar strange. This was not something she sees everyday. I parked the car for a minute, and allowed myself to be momentarily mesmerized as Ronald waved hello to me too.
My colleagues and I often talk to advisees about not making assumptions about student perceptions. There is much to be gained by asking kids why images appeal to them and then following up with questions that encourage them to critically examine those preferences. I’m not going to go so far as to thank McDonald’s for providing me and Cora this opportunity, I would still prefer that she grow up in a landscape absent of advertisements. But for now, I’m trying to look beyond the lines I’ve drawn around my own thoughts to the bright side of this scenario.