Fast food and creativity – not an obvious partnership
Alison Taylor, managing director of Conscious Communications, the PR and marketing agency based at St John's Innovation Centre, learns something surprising about McDonald's - and it gets her thinking.
The CC team were characteristically loud in competing at the St John’s Innovation Centre quiz night – we came third which, considering the combined brain power of the Cambridge PhD teams around us was quite something!
Aside from a lasting memory of fun, the thing that really stuck in my mind was the answer to one of the questions, which we got wrong: “which company is the largest distributor of toys in the world?”.
It had to be Amazon, or course, or maybe Argos, or Target – we debated a little and settled on Amazon. I was stunned into silence to find that it is, in fact, McDonald’s.
McDonald's is the largest distributor of toys in the world, and by far. Twenty per cent of all sales at McDonald's include a toy, with one being passed out with each Happy Meal the company sells. Somehow the image of lovely toys and games being delivered in brown, if vastly oversized, Amazon boxes all over the world was eminently more appealing that little bits of pink and blue plastic in Happy Meal boxes.
Before climbing on my high horse though I reflected on the importance of not making rash judgments; I have, of course, indulged my own children in the odd meal-deal so who am I to judge? When we spent a few years in the USA I remember being surprised at quite how intrenched the take-away fast food culture is – many of our friends - hard working, intelligent and educated people, would unashamedly eat several ‘family meals’ in their cars each week. The fast food drive-through, a relative novelty to us at the time, was an everyday part of their family life.
Of course, this isn’t just an American trait, in the UK there has been a 34 per cent increase in the number of takeaway outlets in the last eight years and Public Health England data shows that the eating out of home sector (restaurants, cafes, pubs) accounts for 25 per cent of adults’ energy intake.
So, considering takeaways are such a popular and convenient source of food (I won’t say nutrition), is there an argument to say that adding a little play enjoyment for children in the form of a small toy is not such a bad thing?
As a parent and someone who has been involved with education on many levels for years, I have no doubt that ‘play’ is a vital learning and development tool and particularly important in developing creativity – an important attribute in all aspects of life.
I also know, and in fact research shows, that everyone has the ability to be creative – they simply need to be inspired and stimulated by the right activities. The Genius of Play, in collaboration with the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Centre for the Study of Invention and Innovation, has explored how play serves as a catalyst for creativity and innovation. Their work concluded that, while some children have more active imaginations than others, everyone possesses the ability to be creative - they just need to be inspired and have the chance to let their imaginations run wild and create worlds of their own that they have control over. Play provides children the freedom to come up with unique ideas without adhering to structure or rules, and an active imagination nurtured in early years will continue to serve children throughout their lives.
Research among 1,500 CEOs from 33 industries around the world, shows that business leaders believe that successfully navigating an increasingly complex world will require creativity more than any other skill. So, creativity isn’t just something that’s ‘nice to have’, it’s a valuable commodity.
Dr KH Kim believes that America has a 'Creativity Crisis'. Her research indicates that American creativity declined from the 1990s to 2008 as the country’s educational priorities shifted more to test-taking skills, emulating Asian success, rather than nurturing original thinking.
This thinking will be familiar to anyone interested in education in the UK, where the teaching-to-test debate has raged for years. Dr Kim believes that increasingly fewer innovators will emerge in America and creativity and innovation will decline. I think that the same is true in the UK with the narrowing of our national curriculum and obsession with the EBacc. So, if we believe the research, more our children need to play more, and if creativity isn’t being inspired in schools, can the gap be filled at home?
Thinking about the demography of our population and those more likely to eat regularly from fast food outlets, who are known to be from the least affluent communities, can we argue that a ‘free’ toy which might give a child living in poverty access to a tool for helping to develop their creativity, is a good thing?
This line of thought, in relation to McDonald’s, makes me feel very uncomfortable. Would it not be better to use the power of the McDonald’s brand to change eating habits? McDonald’s now offers ‘healthy options’ doesn’t it? Sadly, US data shows that salads only account for two to three per cent of the company's restaurant sales, a statistic which is hardly going to turn around the obesity juggernaut. I suspect that, without a complete menu overhaul, which would surely hit the bottom line, McDonald’s is on a hiding to nothing with this strategy.
I think my discomfort with this line of thinking is because of the nature of the toys being distributed and, of course, because I know that toy distribution is being used as a way of selling more fast food, rather than fast food being used as a way of distributing worthwhile educational aids! But, what if a company were to use the popularity of fast food to distribute toys and games which were proven to aid creative development? What if they were to distribute books?
Interestingly, McDonald’s tried this, but it didn’t last long, seemingly because books don’t sell as many burgers as plastic toys do.
But, with 75 McDonald’s burgers sold every second, or 4,500 burgers every minute, 270,000 every hour, 6.48 million every day, and 2.36 billion burgers every year, just imagine the amount of creativity that could be nurtured if we harnessed fast food as a channel for positive good! Maybe, rather than banning the use of toys in the marketing of fast foods, we need legislation to dictate the type of toys that companies like McDonald’s are allowed to promote and distribute?