A few days into his grand experiment of eating all McDonald’s, all the time, for 30 days straight, the New York film-maker Morgan Spurlock started complaining of headaches and other unpleasant side-effects: listlessness, depression, chest pains, shortness of breath, sexual dysfunction and more. His headaches, however, almost certainly pale in comparison to the giant, throbbing one his much-discussed documentary Super Size Me is causing the executives who run Ronald McDonald’s global empire.
More than five weeks after it was released in the United States, the film is playing on more screens than ever – 230 nationally and expanding every week – and has racked up more than $7.5m (£4m) in domestic box office receipts, more than100 times more than it cost to make.
Instead of suffering the usual fate of documentaries – a limp roll-out in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, followed by oblivion and late-night television reruns – Super Size Me is showing every sign of being a bona fide hit, especially with teenagers, the very demographic so hotly sought out by McDonald’s marketing managers.
Every night, audiences are confronted with the sight of Spurlock’s alarmingly deteriorating health as he shovels one McDonald’s meal into his mouth after another. He eats McDonald’s for breakfast, lunch and dinner, vowing to try everything on the menu at least once in the course of his experiment, minimizing his physical exercise (in keeping with the relative immobility of the average American) and agreeing that he will “super size” the portions he orders whenever the server suggests it to him (again, in accordance with the proclivities of regular fast-food customers).
For the final 15 minutes of the screening I attended earlier this week, film-goers revolted by the sight of one too many Egg McMuffins and super-sized side orders of fries were groaning and writhing in their seats. A food industry lobbyist who defended McDonald’s was booed when he made the last of several appearances on screen.
By this point, Spurlock was being told by his doctors that his cholesterol was shooting off the charts, his liver was turning to patÃ© and he risked meeting the same terminally self-destructive fate as Nicolas Cage’s alcoholic protagonist in Leaving Las Vegas. The damage was far beyond anything Spurlock’s trio of specialists had imagined possible, and they begged him (in vain) to abandon his stunt.
To say this is a public relations disaster for McDonald’s is a gross understatement. It is a nightmare that shows no signs of ending. Spurlock has – almost literally – regurgitated the contents of his high-fat, high-sugar diet on to the collective desks of McDonald’s management, and they appear to be at a loss as to what to do about it.
For the first five weeks, they restricted their responses to little more than a generic observation that overeating is bad on any diet. No doubt they reasoned that kicking up a bigger fuss would generate further publicity for the movie. But that hush-hush strategy clearly has not worked, and the company has now begun to fight back in more vigorous fashion. The chosen battleground is not the US but Australia, where Super Size Me was released earlier this month and broke national box office records with its opening weekend receipts.
“If someone from America produces a film, and then comes out to Australia and attacks us, I’m not going to take that sitting down,” the chief executive of McDonald’s Australia, Guy Russo, said earlier this week.
Mr Russo has himself taken the leading role in a series of television advertisements in which he tackles Spurlock head on and calls him “stupid” for eating a solid junk food diet for 30 days in a row. In a flurry of newspaper and television interviews, Mr Russo has explained how he was enraged on seeing the film earlier this month.
“No one eats McDonald’s food three times a day, every day, and no one should,” he told the Melbourne newspaper The Age.
(He himself says he eats his own company’s meals at least three times a week, and has done for the past 30 years.) “We believe, and have always believed, that McDonald’s can be eaten as part of a well-balanced diet. What Mr Spurlock set out to do, which was to double his daily calorie intake, deliberately not exercise and over-eat, was totally irresponsible.”
In an offensive predicated on charm as well as full-frontal attack, Mr Russo has also argued that McDonald’s takes the issue of obesity very seriously, having introduced salads, low-fat breakfasts and nutritional labeling in the past 18 months.
To date, McDonald’s has not challenged the factual content of Super Size Me, only its point of view and interpretation. But that, too, could be about to change, after Mr Russo complained in an interview with Sky TV that Spurlock was “providing false claims to Australians”.
He did not spell out what those false claims might be, and both Spurlock and the film’s Australian publicists have taken great pleasure in pointing out that Mr Russo’s opinions on the point appear to have undergone a radical change. “Less than two weeks ago when I was in Brisbane,” Spurlock shot back a few days ago, “he and I did an interview together on a radio station where he said the movie was important because it highlighted the obesity epidemic.”
Whatever the rights and wrongs of these points of view, it is clear that a propaganda war is in progress, and that something made Mr Russo decide that playing nice wasn’t working. But playing nasty is having boomerang effects of its own.
The Australian distributor, Dendy Films, reacted to the McDonald’s television advertising campaign by claiming that cinema managers were having to spend longer cleaning up auditoriums where Super Size Me has been showing because people alarmed by the dangers of bad eating presented on screen were leaving behind full cartons of popcorn and soda cups. In a less contentious climate, it is probably not something it would have bothered to put out in a press release. Dendy also offered a free ticket to the film for any employee of McDonald’s Australia. Spurlock, meanwhile, has taken issue with Mr Russo’s nutrition labeling claims, saying that the posted signs at point of purchase – which Mr Russo said were his “commitment” in the interview they did together – were not evident in most Australian outlets of McDonald’s.
From the fast-food industry’s point of view, there was probably never going to be a good time for a film like Super Size Me. It has hit McDonald’s not quite at the worst time – that would have been 18 months ago, when the company posted its first ever quarterly loss and its share price lost three- quarters of its value – but at something very close to it.
When Super Size Me had its debut in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where it picked up an award for documentary directing, McDonald’s had just pulled itself out of a hole caused by over-aggressive expansion, growing complaints about customer service, concerns about obesity, a volley of lawsuits filed against the fast-food industry and – to cap it all – fears of mad cow disease.
The company had already recognized it needed to do something about the health liability of its products. In addition to the salads and yogurt breakfasts introduced in Australia and elsewhere, it added low-fat milk and sliced fresh apples to its menus in the US, the UK and elsewhere. The revamp worked, at least financially, and soon McDonald’s executives were hailing their turnaround hero, the chief executive, Jim Cantalupo, as a visionary and genius on a par with the company’s founder, Ray Kroc. Or they did until Mr Cantalupo dropped dead of a heart attack in April – hardly the best publicity for a fast-food company on a health kick.
One of the most galling aspects of Super Size Me, from the company’s viewpoint, must have been its illustration of the calorie and sugar content of even these new “healthy” items.
The film demonstrates – using McDonald’s own nutritional data – that some of the salad dressings are as bad as anything else on the menu. The Caesar salad with chicken premiÃ¨re, for example, contains more fat than a cheeseburger.
Remarkably, just six weeks after Sundance, McDonald’s announced that the super-sizing that Spurlock reacts to so vehemently in the film (his first encounter with a mega- portion of fries and Coke ends up on the asphalt of the drive-through parking lot, along with a double quarter pounder he couldn’t quite bring himself to finish) was to be phased out by the end of this year. Even more remarkably, the company insisted the decision had nothing to do with the film, but had been under consideration for several months.
Another McDonald’s announcement came on the very eve of Super Size Me’s US release on 6 May: the introduction of the “Go Active Happy Meal”, complete with salad, free exercise manual and a Stepometer for customers to monitor their daily walking regime. Again, the company insisted the timing was a coincidence.
Not everyone in the food industry has responded so bashfully.
Even before the Australian counter-attack, an outfit called the American Council on Science and Health started ripping into Super Size Me in a series of press releases, op-ed pieces and capsule opinions offered by purported dietary and health experts. Another organization, called Tech Central Station, offered itself as a clearing house of opinion and factual evidence, condemning Spurlock’s film as a scurrilous, misleading, “disgusting”, “dangerous” and “dishonest” piece of work.
The American Council on Science and Health has not publicly disclosed its corporate donors since 1991, but in the past they have included crisp manufacturers, chocolate manufacturers, Burger King and Coca Cola (a business partner of McDonald’s). Tech Central Station, meanwhile, is backed by the oil giant ExxonMobil, General Motors and, yes, McDonald’s.
One op-ed piece, by the food industry lobbyist Jim Glassman, made its way into a couple of US papers, including the St Louis Post Dispatch, which apologized after it discovered his direct links to McDonald’s.
But the counter-spinning goes on. One documentary maker, Soso Whaley, has filmed her own 30-day McDonald’s diet and claims it did her no harm whatsoever. Her corporate backers: Philip Morris, the tobacco company, ExxonMobil and Coca Cola.