Schlosser describes a visit to One McDonald’s Plaza in Oak Brook, IL, where he goes to the McStore—an enormous gift shop for the company—and the Ray Kroc Museum. Schlosser is impressed and slightly confused by the overwhelming amount of McDonald’s merchandise for sale, many items of which include the stars and stripes of the US flag. Schlosser notes that the tone of the McDonald’s museum, and indeed its entire corporate complex, is “Disneyesque,” and he argues that this is not a coincidence, since Kroc—the man who took the McDonald’s brother’s small company and made it a behemoth—and Walt Disney have a great deal in common.
Schlosser goes to great pains to show that McDonald’s, like the Disney company, is a major US conglomerate whose business model is largely predicated on the selling of products to children. The toys in the McStore are not dissimilar from the toys, cartoons, and rides that Disney offers, in film and in its theme parks. To Schlosser, both these companies realized that, after the Second World War, an enormous “baby boom” generation was waiting to be catered to—and though McDonald’s ads were directed at children, it was their parents who paid big bucks for burgers and toys.
Both Kroc and Disney were self-educated, and their training facilities they christened “universities,” to make employees at Disney and McDonald’s feel that they were entering an institution of higher learning by becoming part of the company. Both Kroc and Disney, Schlosser continues, were “great salesmen,” who were skilled especially at “selling things to children.” Kroc was trained as a salesman in Oak Park, Illinois, and was selling “milk-shake mixers” to the McDonald’s Speedee Self-Service restaurant in San Bernardino, CA, in 1954, when he “envisioned putting a McDonald’s at busy intersections all across the land.” “Kroc convinced the McDonald’s brothers to sell him the right to franchise McDonald’s nationwide,” as Schlosser puts it, and the brothers, content to retire on what was then a significant (but not astronomical) amount of money, thus agreed to let Ray Kroc become head of the soon-to-be McDonald’s corporation.
Ray Kroc’s primary idea—franchising—was perhaps even more important than McDonald’s speedee service system. With the franchising model, fast food restaurants could expand quickly around the country, using the same technologies developed in McDonald’s LA locations, without forcing the McDonald’s corporation to expand beyond its financial means. In essence, as Schlosser explains later, McDonald’s franchising model allowed for “risk-sharing” in the process of expanding the company: the franchises made money for McDonald’s, but those starting the franchises were partially small business owners, trying out new markets to see if they made money for themselves and for the McDonald’s corporation.
Schlosser notes that, after purchasing McDonald’s franchising rights, Kroc sent a letter to Disney, then already quite famous as head of the Disney movie studio, to ask to sell McDonald’s products at the soon-to-open Disneyland theme park in Anaheim. Disney was polite but ultimately dismissed Kroc’s advances—something Schlosser attributes to the relatively small size of McDonald’s at the time, versus the corporate heft and buying-power of Disney.
What is hard to believe, at this point in the narrative, is that there was a time when McDonald’s and Disney weren’t similarly large conglomerates. As Schlosser tells it, McDonald’s played “catch up” for about a decade with Disney, the latter of which was the far larger company immediately after World War II.
Schlosser explains Disney’s methods for making cartoons during the 1930s and ‘40s: for Disney, his studio was “a machine for the manufacture of entertainment.” Schlosser argues that exactly this quality, of a machine producing something customers, especially children, might want, was deeply influential for Kroc, who imagined the McDonald’s Speedee Service System nationwide, as a blueprint for the efficient production of burgers and fries.
Schlosser directly compares the Disney model of creating cartoons—with some cartoonists recreating parts of a cartoon over and over, breaking the work down into smaller segments—as an analogue to the speedee service system at McDonald’s. This “rationalization” of labor occurring after the Second World War, as Schlosser notes, took place across multiple industries.
Disney, as Schlosser notes, was a strong supporter of Republican causes. Ronald Reagan, a former movie star who would go on to be a Republican Governor of California and President of the United States, was, for example, part of the Disneyland opening ceremony. Schlosser argues that Kroc’s politics were harder to trace, since Kroc tended not to get involved in national political issues—unless they directly affected his business. Thus, in the early 1970s, Kroc donated a large sum to Nixon’s reelection campaign, in part because Nixon supported a bill that would allow fast-food restaurants to pay high-school-age workers less than the minimum wage—a bill men like Kroc staunchly argued for.
Of course, when a company gets large enough, it begins to have influence in politics, at the local, state, and federal level. Disney executives wanted to be sure the company could gain access to cheap land to build its theme parks; McDonald’s wanted to be able to pay its employees as little as possible to maximize profit. For McDonald’s, a transient labor force was acceptable, since the speedee service system made the job of making a hamburger so simple that employees needed very little training to do it.
Disney was also greatly enamored with “progress,” not unlike Carl Karcher, the founder of Carl’s Jr. In particular, Disney’s progress, like Kroc’s, involved an America that looked more suburban, and required families to drive on major interstate highways. Disney’s Tomorrowland amusements at his theme parks promoted exactly this type of future, and coupled it with something he called corporate “synergy,” wherein other companies would sponsor exhibits in Tomorrowland and across Disneyland, as a way of promoting a clean, corporate—and, by Schlosser’s reckoning, pro-capitalist and anti-communist—future.
Interestingly, Tomorrowland at Disney made the entire future look like a suburb—which, to Schlosser, is a major indication of how the Disney company viewed the world and its future. Disney and his design teams could have just as easily made Tomorrowland a densely-populated super-city—but, to Disney, the future revolved around the automobile, and the sense of boundless freedom emanating from the car. McDonald’s, too, made use of this model as it expanded stores along highways across the country.
Kroc also believed in this kind of progress. He tried, for a time, to plan a McDonald’s theme park, also in the LA area, but settled, as Schlosser writes, for smaller “McDonaldlands” and PlayPlaces, situated at McDonald’s franchises across the country. Kroc also helped introduce what would become McDonald’s most recognizable corporate embodiment—after the Golden Arches themselves—Ronald McDonald, the red-and-yellow-suited clown who would go on to achieve even broader name recognition than Mickey Mouse, according to polls conducted in the 1970s in the United States.
Schlosser cleverly links the PlayPlaces located at McDonald’s location across America to Disneyland and Disneyworld, both theme parks in the “official,” large-scale sense, where patrons pay admission to go on rides. McDonald’s PlayPlaces were more like playgrounds, without rides—but they invited children to spend more time at McDonald’s locations, thus boosting sales for children and the parents who spent time looking after them in the ball pit or on the slide.
Schlosser argues that McDonald’s and Disney were part of a broader shift in the American economy, in the late 1970s and into the ‘80s and ‘90s, wherein sales and marketing were directed increasingly to children. There were many reasons for this, although, in part, children’s tastes were relatively easy to predict—indeed, to mold—and McDonald’s and Disney pioneered the practice of making their burgers, fries, movies, and theme parks seem irresistible to younger consumers, who would then convince their parents to spend cash. Schlosser points to the increasing amounts of television watched nationally in the US in the 1980s as a major contributor to advertiser’s access to children, since spots could be placed in with cartoons and other kid-friendly programming.
Another link Schlosser draws is that between television, children, and the post-war economy. Television advertising, paired with programming directed toward children in the 1950s and ‘60s, allowed for direct marketing of hamburgers, toys, cartoons, and other amusements to an enormous audience of kids, who could then be depended upon to ask their parents for the product in question. To Schlosser, Disney and Kroc were really the first two innovators to realize just how powerful, and how lucrative, the kids’ market could be.
Schlosser writes that corporate synergy reached a new zenith in 1996, when McDonald’s and Disney signed a ten-year agreement for cross-promotion of products between the companies—especially the marketing of Disney films as part of McDonald’s toys in happy meals. “McDonald’s also began to sell its hamburgers and French fries at Disney’s theme parks,” Schlosser notes, stating that “the life’s work of Walt Disney and Ray Kroc had come full-circle.”
By the ‘90s, the former distinction between “big-time” Disney and “small-time” McDonald’s was obliterated; both corporations had enormous national and global reach, and a deal between them secured giant revenue streams for both companies into the 21st century.
Schlosser describes other situations in which the “synergy” between companies and consumers is more suspect—even somewhat invasive. Schlosser notes that, by the 1990s, McDonald’s was concerned that families were no longer buying McDonald’s food out of loyalty to the brand, since some consumers thought that other fast-food establishments had better burgers for less money. Thus McDonald’s circulated internal memos arguing that the company should be considered, by families, a “trusted friend,” such that parents believe they are doing something special for their children by taking them out for a burger and fries.
Brand loyalty isn’t always about the taste of a hamburger and fries, or the nature of the toy one finds in a happy meal. Kroc understood that brand loyalty was deeper than that—if parents and children could connect McDonald’s to a happy and peaceful time in their lives, they would be willing to go to McDonald’s for the remainder of their days, perhaps in search of those same happy memories. It is a slightly cynical view on the part of the corporation—but a profitable one.
In public schools, too, McDonald’s, and other large fast-food and beverage companies, began in the 1990s to ink contracts that would enable their products to be marketed and sold on the school grounds. The beverage companies, in particular (like Coca-Cola and Dr. Pepper) believed that aggressive marketing to younger consumers could create a “brand loyalty” that would increase sales of the product long-term, after the students had left school. Although some of these partnerships were more profitable than others, one such agreement, in the schools of Colorado’s Front Range, allowed a school administrator named John Bushey to leave his job in the Colorado Springs district, and to move to Florida to become “principal of the high school in Celebration, a planned community run by The Celebration Company, a subsidiary of Disney.”
Schlosser believes, and takes pains to point out, that corporate “synergy” has its limits, however. Schlosser barely reserves his scorn for a food program in the nation’s school that privilege fast-food companies and their profits. These deals help to enrich school administrators, who wind up sometimes leaving the school and working for the fast-food company in question. And they certainly don’t serve the best interests of students, whose lunches ought to consist of fruits and vegetables, rather than mass-produced burgers and fries containing far fewer essential nutrients.