Local-washing food and sportswritingPosted: Thursday, October 8, 2009
McDonald’s recently launched a local TV commercial around these parts (h/t All Over Albany). Yep, multi-national Mickey D’s name-dropped a bunch of Albany-isms (some of which The Locals don’t actually or frequently use) into a spot in a bid to put a local face on the Golden Arches.
I suppose it should be a compliment that parochial Small-bany rated a commercial geared directly toward its decidedly Single-A market. But a comment about “local-washing” in the All Over Albany blog got me thinking about the phenomenon.
The “Buy Local” movement has had some positive impacts, even beyond the obvious growth of the excellent farmer’s markets we have in upstate New York. I like that regional chain supermarket Hannaford sells some local produce from farms in a few-county radius here, even if the offerings are limited to one cart in a several-thousand-square-foot store. But they position the offering as you come into the produce section and label it with the farm it came from. Bully for them. It’s a good idea, and a smart idea. It appeals to my 100-Mile Food sensibilities, even if I don’t come close to fully practicing that.
But what about Starbucks re-naming one of its Seattle stores as “15th Avenue Coffee and Tea” to whitewash some corporate stain? What about the execrable Gannett Corporation’s deceptively named ShopLocal™ Web site? (h/t Forbes). Frito-Lay ads in Florida? Local-washing efforts by Barnes & Noble, Wal-Mart, Citgo and Hellmann’s? Does at least some of what Wal-mart and other supermarkets do (in selling local produce) redeem themselves in the same way that Hannaford does in my mind (though Hannaford’s superior-for-a-chain organic section, including its own house-brand, gives it a bump in my book, and no, I’m no flack for them, I just like their store; but am I biased because I’m a fan?). And, as Elisabeth Eaves writes in Forbes, did the “Localvores” bring this onto themselves?
I have mixed feelings about this. Not about the McDonald’s commercial, but about the full ethos of buying local. I support that philosophy wholeheartedly, but I worry about the dogma of supporting that ethos to the exclusion of all other approaches.
It’s hard to ignore the fact that the chains do actually hire local people, which Eaves notes — yes, I agree that they do create jobs. On the flip side, those jobs often pay poorly, come with limited or no health insurance, send most (if not all) of the local franchise’s profits out of the area and back to the corporate headquarters, are situated in a building that often has no architectural relationship to long-standing neighboring structures (except to other chain places in a sea of urban sprawl, and this in the face of typically weak zoning laws), and quite possibly replaced jobs in locally owned businesses (not franchises) to begin with.
On the other hand, in these strained economic days, if I’m not eating PB&J for lunch (again) my lunch budget is $3 — enough for two items off McDonald’s Dollar Menu and a buck coffee, provided I can scrounge up enough change in between my car seats to cover the sales tax. Plus, we took Junior to the place once and he referred to it as “Old McDonald’s.” In fact, we tried Wendy’s a few weeks later, and eager to avoid him becoming brand-brainwashed, we called Dave Thomas’ place Old McDonald’s, too.
(Aside: At once point I had attempted the Neil Pollack approach in Alternadad and tried to flip branding on its ear by telling Junior that, whenever he saw the Golden Arches, it signaled a building that sold yucky food. That didn’t last long once we had a hungry 3-year-old suddenly awake on a road trip and the only thing open on a Thruway rest stop was Mickey D’s. But I digress.)
In the end, it’s a fine line. Hannaford’s approach seems to be the right one, though of course, I’d like to see even more local offerings there. But McDonald’s approach seems more sneaky, more insidious somehow.
With newspapers seemingly racing each other to see who can provide more worthless coverage while laying off as many staffers as possible, the Word Wide Leader in Sports™ found an opening to go for the jugular with ESPN Web sites geared and tailored toward a local market.
Could other national sites like FoxSports follow ESPN in smelling market-share blood and joining the feeding frenzy? Could this be the end of local coverage by local papers, which I’ve already noted are getting shoddier by the day and whose Web offerings range from sometimes comprehensive to frankly shitty? Will the New York Times be the last paper in America providing a decent sports section? (And as a kid who grew up in the Eighties reading the sports sections of New York’s fierce tabloids and who remembers when the Times ran, like, 2 pages of sports per day, it pains me at many levels to write that preceding sentence.)
Sure, ESPN is hiring some local writers and providing jobs, and is this all that different from chain-store franchises creating local jobs? Or is ESPN going to hire only “name” columnists from the local press and screw the hard-working and largely anonymous beat writers, GA reporters, editors, Web designers, paginators, etc.?
Frankly, I’d rather have my fingernails pulled out like George Clooney’s in Syriana than have to sit through ESPN’s TVand Web programming, but a lot of Americans seem to like having their fingernails pulled out. But I’m digressing again.