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Fast Food Activism

Fast Food Activism

by Matthew Ainslie Burke, image by Black Koki at Love and Hate Studio / 16.03.2010

Fast-food outlets are comforting in the guarantee of sameness they offer. Ask, and thou shalt receive – a perfect transference of imagined desire into real-world satisfaction. As I stand in line, looking up at the succulently rendered chicken burger and waiting to bend this Mecca of instant gratification to my will, I am purposefully oblivious to the converse of my soon-to-be satiated anticipation.

I’ve learned not to look back as the doors close behind me. Small faces press themselves to the glass, their breath leaving transient mirages across the pane. The glass is a forcefield: physical and psychological. They cannot enter, and their excommunication is invisibly walled off from my consciousness. It’s reminiscent of a time people believe now banished.

These are precisely the thoughts which are light-years from my mind as a cashier becomes vacant and I step forward quickly to fill the void, thoughts awash with the promise of Succulent Chicken.
“Hi, I’d like the Succ-”
“Would you like to add hope?”
Add hope? My brow furrows. The cashier points to a poster, my eyes follow. An anonymous celebrity hovers above a group of children. Her quiet eyes speak of a great humanistic project. Add two Rand to the price of your meal.  Add Hope. With a capital H.

It’s an odd betrayal of this place’s promise. An ungratifying insertion, an invisible barrier between asking for what I want and getting it. Add Hope. Imperatives press in from all sides. There is a queue behind me. Children are starving. Someone important is watching.  There is no time to reflect. The giant Succulent burger bears down on me, as do the truculent chips beside it. The celebrity endorser-figure looks on. She is cast in black and white. It’s a Manichean test: you either do or you don’t.

“Uh, yeah,” the golden words of a default morality jerk out of my mouth.

I receive my order and find a table a decent distance from the glass. I’ve added Hope, relegated the responsibility to the past tense, discharged my duty. A moralising Hamlet, I reach for the ocular proof and unfold the thin till slip. There it is, beneath ‘Lrg Chips – 14.00’ lies my proof: ‘Hope – 2.00’. I fold the slip in an act of acquittal, and look back to the poster for affirmation. Add Hope, it demands of me afresh. The children are starving. As long as that poster stays on the wall, the children will always be starving. The images are starving.

I realise the ploy. The frantic urgency, the unrelenting imperative – they gesture away from the problem’s cause, from the why. The celebrity’s firm moral hand entwines its fingers with yours and leads you away from the disease itself, and to an infinite realm of intolerable symptoms demanding unending action. To satisfy the poster I would have to spend eternity in that queue, buying the smallest mini-salads, adding Hope, and rejoining the line unto the ending of time. It’s a supercilious morality which cannot divorce itself from an obsession with purchases, with now.

While the glass is a physical barrier to entry, Hope is a subtler division – one for the mind. It interrupts your order, disquiets you, but is quick to lull. It’s OK, you can do your bit from in here. You don’t even have to turn around and look at them. Just say, “Yes”. The real world is quietly euthanised. What is excluded is the sedate barbarism of this place, an inverted culinary Colosseum where you can sit with your back quietly turned and eat a burger in front of hungry children. If I were to enact the truth of this place I would have to press my face against the glass, pack my mouth to obscenity, and pump my maw whilst glaring into whatever eyes would meet mine.

It is not the shiny, posed, celebrity-endorsed images which are going without. It is the indistinguishable bundles of reality outside who are famished, cut off from a world of Succulent Chicken and Hope by a wall of transparent forces. They are the survivors, the bearers of real hope. They have to be. As I slip between them on my way out, it is all too apparent that the abstract goodwill was not for them. It was a gift that, backed into a corner, I bought for my middle-class sensibilities. And that is the comforting genius of this fast-food retailer, beyond the mundane mouth-watering indulgences on offer – they sell Hope there too.

Image © and courtesy Black Koki at Love and Hate Studio.

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  1. the pope's nose says:

    beautifully written and a subtle reminder that money alone will not fix our problems.

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  2. rettambuli says:

    excellent read!

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  3. ling ling says:

    I just cant bring myself to relate to kfc as food. Your are hungry when you walk in and guilty when you walk out, there is NO hope, just as there is NO love, for the environment or the starving children. I get it, it is just sad.

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  4. Anonymous says:

    “default morality” word.

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  5. Simon Hartley says:

    I actually went to the launch of the SA Add Hope campaign in Llandudno.

    Now, I agree, there’s plenty of irony to be had here. Take my experience, for example. I was invited to the launch of a feeding programme, and I was fed gourmet food, offered Veuve Cliquot (is that how you spell it?) by the bottle and shmaltzed with PR types for four hours. Seemed to me like it was us pontzes who were getting the best feeding deal, and that was true.

    What was pretty cool, though, was chatting to the KFC MD Keith Warren away from the hype professionals. He’s a really humble, approachable dude with two little kids of his own, and from his perspective at least, I reckon his intentions behind this project are entirely sincere. He got pretty wrought up describing what it would mean to him to watch his kids die of hunger, and not be able to do anything about it. I can get behind that.

    Also, the mechanisms of the programme seemed above board. KMPG audits the transactions, and the placement of funds into the hands of on the ground feeding teams. Apparently KFC even covers the costs of the electronic transactions, so literally all of every R2 is donated.

    I’m not for one minute refuting that a programme like this isn’t aggressively marketed for the benefit of KFC as a business, but it’s nice at least to see some genuine sincerity from top-level management.

    And by the by, your R2 will make a difference, there are many more KFC customers than people think, and the compounded sum will be impressive. One other thing, those kids in the picture are real, just because they’re not staring you in the face from outside the window doesn’t make them any less real.

    If you felt morally conflicted, or even if you didn’t, why not buy the kids outside some chow as well?

    What are your thoughts?


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  6. the pope's nose says:

    Simon, my thoughts are that any fast-food concern peddling edible product to the public which is anything but wholesome will do whatever it can to promote an image of “wholesomeness” in other areas of society. If KFC, McDonalds & the like truly cared about the public from the start they wouldn’t be systematically poisoning us with the crap that they sell.

    Governments around the world have woken up to the evils of smoking and the undeniable risk it poses to our health, let alone the huge medical costs in treating smoking-related illnesses. One of these days it will dawn on us that similar concerns should apply to the fast-food industry. How much heart disease, diabetes, organ failure etc is caused by relentless consumption of Kentucky Fried Crap?

    KFC should be subsidising our hospitals, not just the homeless and the hungry. In fact, a malnourished homeless person would probably die faster if he only got to eat KFC from time to time.

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  7. Andy says:

    I guess the question is does Adding Hope (for R2, for fuck’sake, is Hope that cheap?), really address the issues of inequality in our country and our world – and how effectively? Or does it primarily make people feel better, by assuaging their guilt, when they buy an overpriced chicken meal and eat it in front of people who are starving…

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  8. the pope's nose says:

    Another thought – how long does KFC hold on to these “Hope” donations before releasing them for charitable usage? How much interest does it earn on this extra money passing through its tills in the process?

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  9. Simon Hartley says:

    All valid points. Totally agree that the fast food corps will do anything to inject a little bit of nourish spin into their brand if they can. As you say, that can take the form of a “wholesome” initiative.

    I think the point that I was trying to articulate was this: at least there is a small objectively positive outcome from a marketing campaign.

    No doubt hungry kids are being used for marketing, but they genuinely are being fed, KFC doesn’t hold on to the cash. I guess a starving kid won’t worry much if he or she is being used for marketing if they’re getting food in their belly.

    The point then arises: It would probably be better for a campaign like this to make sure that they had a steady stream of hungry kids to feed.

    Sadly, with food security being virtually non-existent to billions of people, the marketing guys won’t ever have to worry about that problem.

    @Andy – I agree with the point you’re making – if a person actively seeks to make themselves feel better by donating R2 instead of feeding someone in front of them, they’re probably a touch heartless, and selfish. If you feel that alleviating a kids hunger would be better served by buying them food and giving it to them directly than making a R2 donation (I think everyone would agree on that), then go ahead and do it. But if there’s no one there at the time, your R2 would go toward feeding a hungry kid, too. Either way, the motivation is the same. I don’t think people should abstain from donating R2 on the basis that they’re making a point.

    Investigate the process, and if you’re satisfied that the kids are actually getting the R2 you donate, then I can’t see any valid reason for not donating. I’m totally on the same page with you that KFC is launching a marketing campaign from a guilt trip, but like I said, this is a marketing campaign where kids do actually benefit coincidentally. I wouldn’t support Add Hope from a moral standpoint (marketing misery is not kiff), but I would from a realist, pragmatic standpoint (kids will actually get fed).

    Know what I mean?

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  10. the pope's nose says:

    “KFC doesn’t hold on to the cash” – PROVE IT!

    Anyone who knows anything about large-scale retail operations is well aware that interest accrued from daily sales accounts for a big part of their profitability. Cash flow is EVERYTHING for these businesses, and the longer they can hold off paying their suppliers the more their bankers reward them for it in the form of interest on this money.

    What is morally questionable here is that our R2 donations should not be part of Kentucky Fried Chicken’s cash-flow equation. They are not selling us anything that they deserve to make any kind of profit margin on. There are no suppliers of raw materials associated with this payment, which is being punted to us as purely for the purpose of social upliftment. If Kentucky Fried Chicken makes any interest on this money it too should be donated to a worthy cause in a transparent and clearly auditable manner. Is this being done?

    PS: I refer to them as “Kentucky Fried Chicken” rather than KFC so that it’s less easy for us to forget what we’re eating.

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  11. nissim says:

    chicken feed!

    a paltry gesture from a dubious operator – ethically and nutritionally. (and the customer/victim is doing all the paying while KFC gets the kudos)

    whey did the chicken cross the road? to avoid the KFC smell (whats in that shit?)

    gotta be bird-brained to eat that crap/believe the spin

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  12. Simon Hartley says:

    Pope’s Nose – Yeah, that’s a valid point re: interest. I’ll find out for our own interest and get back to you.

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  13. Andy says:

    good point Nissim… KFC get the kudos but we, the people, are doing all the paying. And it’s business better than usual for the globo-fast food industry.

    And to quote Mr Burke’s poetry above: “The celebrity’s firm moral hand entwines its fingers with yours and leads you away from the disease itself, and to an infinite realm of intolerable symptoms demanding unending action.”

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  14. Jesus Mannix says:

    God, now I feel like some KFC, with mash and gravy, and coke.

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  15. Jurgen says:

    well said the author. some pretty pertinent points raised too. can’t help but think of a protest outside claremont mcd’s when a mate pressed his face against the window, feigning just the situation black koki refers to. the mert that happened to be snacking on his supersized hot air onna bun didn’t take this too well and a fight broke out pretty sharpish. needless to say the meddleclass lefties left pretty sharpish when faced with uptight gangsters looking for their arms, fuelled by mickey d’s. clear empirical proof that junk food makes you aggresive ;o) and mess with your dress sense, come to think of it.

    no amount of charity will pursuade me to chow down on those poor damn battery chickens.

    a@simon: you seem reasonable enough. but who would not be distraught at the notion of his/her kids starving. if the head of kfc had a heart, he’d stop selling us maltreated animals. nissim got it exactly right.

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  16. the pope's nose says:

    Hey Simon, you were going to get back to us on something, remember?

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  17. Anonymous says:

    Ive noticed streetkids being sent packing from MacDs by the manager, brandishing a stick nogal – why would a global food business have no policy to deal responsibly with hunger, on its doorstep – I’d believe the Hope campaign was doing some good if I was not confronted with the hungry at the door – thank you Mr Burke for your great writing. Let’s have some more of it.

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  18. skeptish says:

    An excellent read and many valid points. KFC looks good in the public eye, attracts warm and fuzzy feelings, whilst making a buck out of it themselves. Typical big corporation mentality and conduct. Good to hear there’s an active voice questioning such campaigns. It would be more impressive if KFC donated it from the purchase itself, for instance. A fairly brash move from KFC, but then again it’s not surprising… just look at the poor excuse for food they serve up.

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  19. Simon Hartley says:

    Hey Pope’s Nose

    It took a while, but I’m back. Couldn’t find a single shred of evidence to back up my point beyond what I was actually told by the head of KFC.

    More than happy to concede your point, guy, and in the absence of anything concrete on my side, I agree.

    When the facts change, I change my mind, not so?

    @Andy Davis – If your CMS lets you know which comments have been posted and where, do me a favour and let Pope’s nose I replied?


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  20. thabo mofokeng says:

    i’m a cahsier at one of the k.f.c stores and i always encourage our customers to donate R2 to feed a starving child, blessed is the hand that gives than the one that recieves, those starving kids doesn’t only need food or material things. the thing that they need the most is us to love them, us to talk to them, us to help those who go to school whith their home works. no money can purchase the time and love. so let us grow the campaighn and make it more upclose and personal. i believe that we can make our country a better place, a place full of opportunities and possibilities, there’s people that has alot of money out there and who are willing to give back to the community and they don’t have a plartform todo that. let’s keep the campaighn alive.

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  21. Anonymous says:

    Good initiative keep it up

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