McDisney? Mickey and Mickey D's Are Talking

Meet McDisney: the meat mouse machine. Disney is reportedly negotiating with McDonald's Corp. for a 10-year cross-endorsement campaign that would link future Disney movies to McDonald's products -- James and the Giant Peach in your Happy Meal. "This is all pure speculation," Charles Ebeling, a McDonald's spokesman, told The New York Times on April 10. The Times had an anonymous Disney executive confirm the speculation. If the deal is consummated, McDonald's would pay $100 million in royalties to sponsor the new Disney Animal Kingdom and run as many as 17 promotions a year linked to Disney films, characters and theme parks. Nothing new. Disney has done cross-promotions for years and, indeed, Burger King's arrangement with Disney, linking the Whopper to Toy Story and The Lion King, may have prompted the latest negotiations. "Cross-promotion between established American brands is going to be a very, very important part of fueling their growth over the next decade," Paine Webber entertainment analyst Christopher Dixon told the Associated Press. Disney has "a targeted growth rate of over 20 percent, and as a company gets larger and larger it's very difficult to sustain those levels." But there is a larger issue at stake than the supremacy of strawberry shakes or stock returns: public health. America, as Texas Sen. Phil Gramm wittily observed last year, is the only country in the world where all the poor people are fat. Gramm meant this as a Neanderthal rationale for cutting welfare, but America's paradox is malnutrition masked by excess calories. In many poor urban neighborhoods, greasy take-out joints and overpriced "convenience" stores offer the only available food. Anemic kids whose growth is stunted get pudgy by the time they reach school age. "They may look like they're getting healthy, but [actually] it's the beginning of obesity," a Tampa pediatrician told the St. Petersburg Times in 1990. "They're simply undernourished kids with more fat on their arms. You can tell they've discovered potato chips and McDonald's." Today one-fifth of Latino children are obese, four times the rate in 1970. "These numbers suggest a mass phenomena going on something psychological on a mass scale," Susan Forester, chief of nutrition and cancer prevention with the California Department of Health Services, told The Los Angeles Times. The phenomenon is corporate growth. Fast-food and convenience corporations have doubled in size over the past 10 years, and their advertising targets children. In 1994 McDonald's world-wide advertising and promotion budget was $1.4 billion 850 million in the U.S. alone. Besides the goodwill that money buys with consumers, it arguably affects the thinking of media outlets that depend in part on those junk-food dollars. Television does news stories on the poor sanitary conditions of individual restaurants. But the networks have yet to do a piece on the costs of fast food to the environment or to the health of society. Those who do criticize the industry face tremendous pressure to shut up -- even when they are a pair of unemployed London anarchists. McDonald's is suing Helen Steel and Dave Morris for libel. The suit was filed in 1990 after the pair helped distribute a political flier called "What's Wrong With McDonald's." The leaflet claims McDonald's: serves "junk food," high in sugar and sodium; creates an addiction; contributes to high rates of colon cancer and heart disease; promotes deforestation through poor grazing techniques in Central and South America; employs the young at poverty-level wages You get the picture. British libel laws absurdly favor the powerful, yet McDonald's has had difficulty disproving the pamphlet's claims. McDonald's cancer expert agreed with the pamphlet. David Green, senior vice-president of marketing (USA), defended McDonald's nutrition standards by telling the court Coca-Cola was "providing water, and I think that is part of a balanced diet." It is not. But try to find the news in America. A search of the Investigative Reporters and Editors' files yielded a half-dozen stories on fast food since 1990. Three were reports of poor food-handling techniques. ABC's Primetime Live report in September, 1995, was typical. The network sent in undercover workers, then Diane Sawyer interviewed Pizza Hut and Dunkin' Donuts employees and found -- surprise -- they had no training regarding food-handling safety. Rats and roaches abounded. Sawyer took pains to remind us that most restaurants are clean, well-lighted places of wholesome goodness. McDonald's wasn't mentioned. And with Disney's purchase of ABC, don't look for any golden arches exposes there soon. "You get a Happy Meal at McDonald's, and all of a sudden you see the Hunchback of Notre Dame grinning at you," said Dixon, the stock analyst. "It creates an enormous amount of brand awareness, and that means that consumers say, 'Gee, mom, let's go see the hunchback.'" Good food, good fun.

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