McDonald’s Baobab Tree

These days, it’s not uncommon to see Western fast food chains alongside local favorites in the post-colony. Lagos, for example, has its Nigerian fast food chains (Mr. Biggs, Chicken Republic, etcetera) but also a brand-new, shiny KFC in the upscale Ikoyi neighborhood, a symbol to many of the city’s modernization and integration into the world economy. This kind of “culinary imperialism” has been discussed before, but less discussed has been the inverse — the use of black and African pride by Western fast food chains to appeal to African-Americans.

Enter McDonald’s new website, 365Black, whose slogan reads “Deeply rooted in the community®!” How deeply? As deeply as “the unique African Baobab tree, which nourishes its community with its leaves and fruit,” just as “McDonald’s has branched out to the African-American community, nourishing it with valuable programs and opportunities.”

The website features pictures of smiling young African-Americans, one even in a cap in gown — if you eat at McDonald’s, it suggests, you’ll be as beautiful and successful as these beautiful people! In its “Opportunities” section, it touts the Ronald McDonald House’s college scholarship program as evidence of its deep roots, but it also touts McDonald’s’ “diverse employment.” Never mind that these diverse employees are paid, on average, about $7.60 an hour, perpetuating cycles of poverty or at least preventing the kind of upward mobility touted on 365Black for many of its employees.

Of course, not all of McDonald’s employees are black, and neither are all of its customers. But the chain’s role in promoting fatty, unhealthy foods in areas with low purchasing power, many of which are predominantly black, is so obvious it need not be addressed. What ought to be addressed, briefly, is the defense of McDonald’s and other fast food chains, which claims that fast food is the cheapest way for the poor to feed themselves. Not true. So even from a “we provide calories” standpoint, McDonald’s has no legitimate claim to being vital for the community, African-American or otherwise.

Aside from issues of health, hegemony, and markets, what we have here is McDonald’s, a Western behemoth pushing a product that could not be even remotely considered African, using an African symbol to appeal to a population of African origin, in order to make itself look like something it isn’t. And it’s a shame that this tactic hasn’t been attacked more widely.

* Justin Scott is a graduate student in African studies at Yale, focusing on access to energy, information, and social networks in Nigeria.

9 thoughts on “McDonald’s Baobab Tree

  1. What an awful article. Nowhere does McDonald’s suggest any connection between eating its food and success. Why should they be chastised for appealing to specific demographics for employment?

    How about whining about real problems?

    • this article is awful. i’m not a fan of mcdonald’s. but no company that pays the minimum wage is “perpetuating cycles of poverty or at least preventing the kind of upward mobility touted on 365Black for many of its employees”. that’s the kind of academic crap that feeds into the minds of young impressionable students trying to ‘help’ africa. most of my friends and myself started off by working at minimum wage. some at mcdonald’s. some still dont’ earn much, but that’s because of their own life choices, not from lack of opportunity (outside mcdonald’s). most of us are doing very well, thanks to our own motivation, education, and hard work.

      however, the boabab imagery and the rest of the website can be seen as offensive to american blacks or anyone who values pluralism. but what is the ‘black community’ anyway? plus i’m pretty sure that most blacks who would be targetted by this campaign don’t know what a boabab is. or much about anything that has to do with africa.

      i would like to read an article on slate about why african-americans are called african-americans please.

      • Your comment seems to suggest that legislation requiring highly-profitable corporations to pay their employees more would be yet another misguided attempt at “helping” and affecting change. I disagree.

        Any behemoth paying that kind of wage to its employees is perpetuating income inequality. That some become store managers (to the tune of $30k/yr) while McDonald’s reaps billions in profits does little to dissuade me.

  2. The ONLY good thing about this is that maybe people will stop using the blasted Boabab tree as a theme in publicity. It has become the most shallow and facile symbol since the days when people would put bloody pyramids everywhere.

    • There is certainly nothing wrong with working at McDonald’s. There is also nothing about having a black CEO that excuses, or even eases, the representational problems outlined in this blog post.

  3. I agree with this article. What has McDonalds done for black people? Generally get an eery feeling when I see marketing directed at black people specifically. I think the war against vague African metaphors is futile at this point. Which group of people were nourished and protected by that tree. Even though there might have been some group of people. It wasn’t the whole of the continent.

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