Dead dads and Junk food

This morning I posted a blog where I wrote about the word Saudade; a word used to describe the love remaining following loss with a repressed knowledge that our beloved will return. Little did I know that just one hour later I would find out that all I really needed in order to deal with the deep longing for my own father was eat a McDonalds Fillet-O-Fish.

Of course what I am flippently referring to is the new McDonald’s advert, that has received a lot of attention today, in which they use the experience of a young person who is grieving his father to sell their fish based burger (is that what it is?).

Before we go much further, perhaps you need to see it for yourself.

In this video we not only witness a young person who is grieving, but more importantly for the narrative of this piece we see that he is looking for a sense of connection to his father that it would appear he knows little of.

Through the advert we see his ‘searching’ question for “what was dad like?” and ultimately the underlying and unspoken question of “am I like my dad in anyway?” Searching for a way in which he can in some way connect with an unknown parent.

This is something that resonates with many, many people and is a deliberate move from McDonalds to play into the psychological need that people have to find an attachment with someone and connect that with their product. Leaving us with the equation:

Belonging = McDonalds.

I myself found myself feeling the pain of the boy as he searched. My dad died when I was 26 but I still ask the questions; what would my dad be like now? Would I be like him? Would he approve of me and my decisions? What would he make of my daughters, who he never met. In this respect, well done. I’m connected to the story they are trying to tell.

We see his mum reminisce about who his dad was and in each set piece we see that the boy try’s, and fails, in every way to be like or see if he measures up to, this image of his dad that he is being given.

  • Tall as a house with big, big hands
  • always smart and his shoes always shiny
  • playing football he was captain
  • being a hit with the ladies
  • even down to genetics of eye colour we see that this boy is nothing like his dad in any way

In every way that his mum builds this lad up he fails and you see his disappointment build in this set piece.

Every way, that is, but one – his love for the McDonalds fillet-o-fish and his ability to miss his mouth with said burger is the same as his dads. The music builds while his mum suddenly realises this similarity, at which point the boy is so focused on eating the food he completely misses the point.

However, in dismissing  this advert as a cynical ploy to delve into the deepest anxieties of the unanswered questions of grieving children one can miss some really valuable points that need exploring.

It  certainly seems that the sum of most responses that I have seen, people are offended by the exploitative nature and as a consequence McDonalds have apologised with a spokespeople saying: “This was by no means an intention of ours.” “We wanted to highlight the role McDonald’s has played in our customers’ everyday lives – both in good and difficult times,”.

It’s possibly worth looking at the full BBC article here on this before going on but in that article some interesting things come out.

Parents have complained that their bereaved children have been upset by the advert. I can see how, if you have been bereaved, as I have, that this, very emotive subject could have an effect on children who are still in a place of raw grief.

This came out in the question posed by one child who asked “why the boy wasn’t sad?” and “how he could feel happy again.”

What a normal question to ask – for one child to see another who had experienced the death of a parent, but was showing different emotions it can be very confusing. However, what we do know is that sadness comes in many ways and shows itself in many forms. Just because a young person is able to formulate questions regarding his dad does not mean there isn’t sadness. The implication in the scenario is that the bereavent happened before the young lad was able to form his own opinion about his dad, hence the questioning about what dad was like.

I think it is also really important to remember that everyone experiences grief in their own unique way, in their own time and then see grief from their own perspective within the grief that they are experiencing. Therefore one persons grief will always look and feel nothing like another persons grief.

It can be a helpful conversation to have with a young person to discuss and wonder if there is life beyond the emotion they are feeling in any given moment. Be it anger, sadness or grief… The question; ‘will this last forever?’, ‘is there a time when this feeling may not be all that you feel?’ or ‘Is it possible to believe that there may be joy to be found in stories of those you loved?’ can be helpful if asked at the right time in opening the idea of a new life without that person and in itself the questioning is part of the natural grieving process.

If we were to focus the grieving process on one theory, we could look at the seven stages of grief as described below:
(These are not a simple one theory fits all model and is not a linear process but can help us understand some context to the bereavement process.)

  • Shock or Denial
  • Pain and Guilt
  • Anger and Bargaining
  • Depression, Reflection and loneliness
  • The Upward Turn
  • Reconstruction and working through
  • Acceptance and Hope

If we use this as a basis we could suggest that the young person in the advert it at the reconstruction and working through stage of bereavement. He asking questions of himself as much as of his father. Working out who he is, how he fits in his heritage and how he connects with the world around him.

So consider how it would be as another young person to look on at this playing out if you were in any of the first 4 stages. It isn’t until you give yourself permission to ask these questions that you can start to consider what a world without that special person might look like for you.

One significant issue though is what this advert doesn’t do: State categorically  that it’s ok to be your own person. That your dad may also have had failings, that you don’t have to compare yourself to him in anyway, that he could be proud of you regardless of your ability to kick a ball or pull a girl. To me this showed that the mum and son were asking the same question. Can I see my husband in my son or can I see my dad in myself.

A focus in bereavement theory in more recent years is called continuing bonds and looks at how we learn to carry the memory of the person who had died in new ways. In this case both mum and sun are in a stage where they are “looking for signs” of dad in this case in his child.

I believe that there are important questions in this advert, but that doesn’t mean that it makes it the right tool to advertise your product – Ultimately the question that people are asking is: “Is it out of place to use childhood bereavement to sell their product?”

Sadly for me, if nothing else, being reminded of my dead father whenever I see a McDonalds fillet-o-fish has the undesired and somewhat ironic effect of leaving an extremely bad taste in my mouth.

Should McDonalds have used bereavement to sell more food? Have they purposely or inadvertently opened up and normalised a conversation around bereavement?
I would really love to know your thoughts on this.


4 Replies to “Dead dads and Junk food”

  1. I found it really positive that bereavement & childhood grief would/could even be considered for such mainstream media. I found it refreshing that it had become almost normalised. That’s not to dismiss or diminish the emotional pain felt, but how encouraging (especially so close to Mental Health Awareness week) that the conversation was being played out. If they’d produced an advert which more directly addressed the issue of mental health, and aired it during MHA week, would we say they were cynically exploiting the issue, or would we appreciate how it was raising awareness & normalising conversation around a difficult subject?

    To some extent it’s a question of perspective & distance. If you’ve recently been bereaved, or if you’re still supporting a child through it, there’s no doubt that the pain is going to be greater and felt more keenly. Does that mean it is cynical exploitation of that situation? I don’t believe so.

    My Dad died when I was just 9 (I’m now 43). I was able to identify with the questions the boy was asking, without the immediate pain of grief. That clearly altered the way I engaged with the advert. I can totally understand why some were upset by the advert, but to suggest it was a cynical ploy by McDonalds to exploit childhood bereavement is, for me, a step too far. Good film-making (whether entertainment, movies or adverts) is about good story-telling. For a 90-second advert, I think they did a great job of telling a powerful story. Much of the emotional reaction is testament to that fact.

    Thanks for the thoughtful & helpful post Will!


  2. Thank you for your thoughtful blog.

    Corporations can make silly mistakes, despite all the controls that they have. Having had the responsibility for approval of advertisements, I’m convinced I would never have signed this one off. There were instances where I declined because of the content was unsuitable. McDonald’s made themselves an easy target for criticism. This is particularly the case because the boy is portrayed as a bit of failure compared to his dad and doesn’t seem to have that much in common – having junk food as a common factor linking the boy to his father isn’t great .

    I agree that McDonald’s have inadvertently opened up and to a very limited extent normalised a conversation around bereavement.

    Perhaps there is one important point to make is that the sense of loss might not relate to a father dying, but rather it might relate to either never having a genuine father-figure or having a father who failed in that role. This is my experience and others I know.


    1. Thank you for your thoughts on this Grant. I believe there is something g great and very helpful in this video. I just don’t think that McDonalds found it


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