Fat Is Back

Portfolio.com recently posted an interesting article about the resurgence of really bad for you food, focusing on the strategy CKE (the parent company of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr.) has adopted over the past half decade. Go read it, but if you want to read this first, let me discuss the article in short.

Fast food took a bunch of hard knocks when things like Super Size Me and Fast Food Nation tore down the facade that the industry had built around its dietary offerings. The line had always been that their food was absolutely nutritionally sound, even if it wasn’t health food. Now people were realizing that junk food was bad for you (shock!) and wanted to get something healthy at the same price they were getting crap.

While chains like McDonald’s began phasing out things like Supersize options, CKE looked at the market and decided people didn’t really want health food, they just wanted to know it was available. Rather than follow the pack and start offering wraps, they did the exact opposite and wheeled out some truly monstrous burgers with a caloric content over the recommended daily amount for the entire day.

CKE’s thesis, which the article doesn’t challenge, is that the fast food chains bowing to market pressure made the wrong decision. People want to eat, as they call them “decadent burgers.” The only reason you’d put a salad or yogurt thing on your menu is so you, the hungry alpha male, can bring your wife without her complaining too much. This is thesis the other fast food chains have come to accept, leading to competing death-burgers like Wendy’s Baconator and Burger King’s Triple Whopper. People don’t want to be told what to eat, the line goes, and thus will rally to the cry of morbity on a bun and support it with their wallets.

This thesis is supported with evidence of CKE’s increasing same store sales, and it’s a compelling argument. In fact, I think there is a lot of truth there: a certain group of people do want to eat crap. They enjoy it, and are offended by the idea of a group of dietary elitists supported by the media taking away their right to murder themselves. To these people, an ad campaign that tells people that the worst food for you is right here is a breath of fresh air. At McDonalds in the 90’s, they were living in denial, pretending their Supersized Big Mac was good for them so they could fit in with a culture controlled by a health-conscious bourgeois. Now they were enabled – nay, encouraged – to purchase items called Thickburger or Baconator with pride.

I’d like to offer a counterargument. Not to the entire idea, because – as I said – it’s not entirely wrong. Where I suspect the CKE gluttony-as-a-strategy case doesn’t hold is in its suggestion that people who say they want health food don’t actually want it. CKE offers as evidence their poor salad sales, and steps right up to the line of mocking people who think health food sells.

All this proves is that the people already interested in buying from fast food places like Carl’s Jr. aren’t buying vegetables. I doubt this is evidence of anything other than that people don’t come to Carl’s Jr. for anything other than meat, cheese and fried potatoes. A more thorough analysis would probably prove two things.

First, the people who are conscious of what they put into their bodies simply do not eat at fast food joints regularly – if at all. Second, that even when people who do take care to eat healthy things go to a fast food joint, they are either not interested in healthy food at that moment, or take a look at the sickly salad being offered at too high a price and decide to indulge themselves.

I’m speaking from some experience here. I eat oatmeal or healthy cereal for breakfast most mornings. I try to get the right amount of fiber in my diet every day. I’ve cut down on meat and I keep an eye on my sodium intake. If possible, I eat one meal comprised entirely (or mostly) of vegetables a day.

When I step into a McDonald’s, that’s out the window. I get one of the most unhealthy things on the menu: McNuggets. I add in a big thing of fries, too, because I like to dip them in that Hot Mustard concoction they careful parcel out. I don’t step into a place like McDonald’s unless full-on crap is what I’m craving. That’s supremely anecdotal, I realize, but my attitude is rare. I’ll concede that a lot of people talk the talk without walking the walk when it comes to health food. We’re a fairly hypocritical culture.

Still, I’m willing to bet that of the people who say they want health food, more of them mean it than CKE’s gloating tone would lead you to believe. I’m also willing to bet some of those people, when going into Hardee’s or Carl’s Jr., purchase the Monster Thickburger with glee, not because the presence of a salad on the menu makes them feel better, but because that Thickburger is the only reason they went to the place at all. They had their salad, but now they want an unhealthy, heart-stopping treat.

(As a side note, there’s another significant factor at work here: price. I’ll need to talk about that in a separate article, but suffice to say the food to price ratio has a lot to do with fast food’s popularity, and shouldn’t be ignored.)

Which, in a lot of ways, validates CKE’s marketing strategy. They’re right, even if they overstate their case: The people who would be interested in eating at Hardy’s aren’t going to go ga-ga over a turkey wrap. They want meat, and if possible, they want it topped with something fried. McDonald’s marketing themselves as a health food chain is absurd. Their food sucks, whether it’s healthy or not. Take away the junk fried part and all you’ve got left is tasteless crap.

Running an advertisement where a girl in a bikini eats a huge hamburger is delivering your potential customers their favorite lie: Eating nothing but 5,000 calorie meals will make more – and hotter – girls want to sleep with them.

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