Roy Bergold: Tales from McDonald’s | April 2012 | By Roy T. Bergold Jr.

Ditch the Mystery Meat

Even kids want to know where their food is coming from.

Another salvo has been fired in the constant discussion about where quick-service food comes from: the admission of “pink slime.” About the same time this unusual food product was revealed, the company who used it created an advertising campaign talking about where its food comes from. Coincidence?

I am, of course, talking about the presence of ammonium hydroxide and the pink goo it creates in McDonald’s products such as beef and chicken. As you know, it looks pretty disgusting. And there is no requirement to list it as an ingredient. So until very recently, the average consumer had no idea it was there.

Now, this battle has been raging for at least as long as I have been in the business. What exactly is in that hamburger or nugget? In the old days, the accusation was that the hamburger could not be 100 percent beef because it was priced so cheap. There must be other stuff, critics claimed.

We did advertising that attempted to answer that charge. There was no filler, like bread, only beef. So then the critics asked whether we were putting all sorts of sordid parts in with the meat. Nope, we said—and a commercial was born.

I hated it, but I have to admit, it made its point. It opened with a butcher in a white, spotless coat showing us 100 pounds of meat on a butcher block. He then told us that this is all that goes into a McDonald’s hamburger, just meat. It was ugly, but effective. We also hired actor John Houseman to talk about the training in food handling at Hamburger University and what went into the food.

Then we produced the grandfather of the ads on the air today, a spot called “Good Earth,” in which we listed the ingredients in various products while showing the farms they came from. There was wonderful food photography. We also talked about the low-fat and no-fat choices available at McDonald’s for both breakfast and the rest of day. This was all an attempt to dispel the myth that there was some strange addition to the food that made it nonfood.

I can understand why you would want to do damage control on the pink slime. But in asking Center for Science in the Public Interest executive director Michael Jacobson his take on this, he mentioned that grammar-school kids were recently asked what makes a french fry. They didn’t know it was a potato.

One of the new McDonald’s ads currently running shows a farmer peeling a potato, taking a big bite, and proclaiming that it will be even better as a McDonald’s french fry. Have you ever taken a bite of a raw potato? Only the guy who grew it could do that. My first reaction was to wonder how anyone could not know that a french fry is a fried potato, but apparently kids don’t.

To learn more about what kids do know, I did what any self-respecting QSR writer would do: I did some mom research.

I asked moms if their kids wanted Happy Meals, and if so, why. The most popular answer was the toy, but some said it was the food, too. And the kids wanted the toy to do something, like a Frisbee; they didn’t want it to just sit there.

I had an inspiration. Where do a lot of kids eat the most meals? Fast food and school, right? So I asked the moms what kids think of school food. Surprisingly, they mostly said their kids thought it was OK.

After some probing, the subject of appearance and texture of the food came up. One mom told me that her son wouldn’t eat the cheese and bean burrito at school, even though he likes Mexican food. Turns out the stuff is a paste, no sign of cheese or bean. The kids don’t believe there is cheese or beans in the thing. Eureka!

So a possible clue to kids’ eating habits, besides taste, is the form it is in. Ergo, we need to tell them where food comes from. But there is a trap. One kid found out that beef comes from brown-eyed cows, and nuggets from soft feathery chickens, and fish sticks from his betta fish’s cousin, and he ran screaming.

So here’s my hypothesis: Don’t let kids transfer their school experience of cheese and bean paste to your quick serve. Make sure they understand what makes up their food, so there is no mystery meat. French fries are just another form of a potato. And there is nothing wrong with meat, bread, and potatoes in moderation. Maybe that’s why the big guy had a farmer take a nice bite out of a raw potato.

By the way, there were a couple of other results from my mom research. One mom’s kid will try other foods just once. It reminded me of a Two and a Half Men episode. Evelyn attempts to get Jake to try sushi, and when she hands him a tuna sushi piece, his immediate response is, “That’s not tuna, I’ve had tuna.” This mom’s son would try sushi but would probably never eat it again.

You know, I always have the answer when there is a question. I’m not saying it’s the right answer, but it is an answer. Have kids talk to kids about food, instead of farmers or cattlemen. And make sure it’s kid-speak. Kids will believe other kids way more than they believe adults, and rightfully so.

Also, remember to use full disclosure. Everything should be on the label or available at the point of purchase. If it is ammonium hydroxide or GMO, tell me. When you don’t, I think you’re hiding something, and that makes me really suspicious. If it doesn’t look like beans and cheese, it probably isn’t. I’m with the kids here.

Happy Trails and a Peaceful Life. And for the record, I have tried tuna sushi. It is tuna, Jake, just in another form.

Roy Bergold

Roy started his career at the Leo Burnett Company in 1967. Two years later he decided to sell hamburgers instead, and began his adventure at McDonald’s. Starting as an assistant advertising manager, he became manager, national advertising manager, director of advertising and promotion, assistant vice president of advertising and promotion, and vice president of advertising.

Roy retired from McDonald’s in 2001 as Chief Creative Officer. Along the way, he was responsible for U.S., as well as all advertising worldwide. While under his care, McDonald’s earned every creative award possible, including Cannes, Clios, and the Four A’s best five year campaign. Roy lives happily in Payson, Arizona, with his wife, dogs, and horses.