The Saweetie Meal at McDonalds

Understanding Exploitation through the “Saweetie Meal”

Background

Over the course of the past few weeks, the “Saweetie Meal” has taken the internet and the streets by storm. In case you haven’t heard, McDonald’s now offers this meal, which consists of a Big Mac, 4 piece chicken nuggets, a Sprite, fries, and “Saweetie ‘N Sour” and Tangy BBQ sauce. Moreover, customers can “remix” the meal by having it served up just like Saweetie would: you can put your fries in the Big Mac, have the nuggets chopped up and placed on the sandwich or you can layer the nuggets on top of a bed of fries. As Saweetie says in the official campaign video, “As long as you’re doing you, you’re doing the Saweetie Meal.”

The Saweetie Meal is not unique, it’s just the latest offering in McDonald’s “Famous Orders” program, which has also featured celeb-styled combos with Travis Scott, J Balvin, and the Korean boyband BTS. It’s a part of a company strategy to target “new investments in diverse-owned media content for the company in an effort to further reflect its diverse customers, workers, and communities in its marketing.”

Many others have already written about this from the lens of desirability, fatphobia, and beauty politics so I want to be clear that this is not that. This is also not an attempt to shame or police people’s consumption habits. I wrote this to help us better understand the terrain. This is a material analysis of who is exploited in the business of the Saweetie Meal and how. Before folks start to roll their eyes and suck their teeth, I want to be clear that this is not a Saweetie hit piece, but instead a look at how celebrity-centered analysis can never truly lift up everyday African people. My goal is to create an educational resource for others to examine and understand how exploitation works. Exploitation is so baked into the fabric of our everyday lives, that you can switch “Saweetie” out here for any celebrity or group involved in the “Famous Orders” campaign, just like you can swap out McDonald’s for any billion-dollar corporation participating in an influencer based marketing strategy centering “diversity”. Throughout this work I will refer to McDonald’s frequently as “the billion-dollar corporation” to emphasize that Mcdonald’s is not a “restaurant” in its scale or service, it is something much bigger.

As illustrated in the diagram above, there are 4 major players involved in this scheme of exploitation. I identify them as the following:

  1. Saweetie (or the influencer/celebrity figure themself)
  2. Media and the black business class
  3. McDonalds workers (the laboring class)
  4. The colonized African masses

Saweetie (or the influencer/celebrity figure themself)

While not the most important site of exploitation, Sweetie’s likeness is indeed exploited by McDonald’s. No matter what the terms of the deal are agreed upon by both parties, under capitalism, the use of her image can never be more than or equal to the profits created by it, for Mcdonald’s. Capitalism functions because the cost of production must be intentionally kept low so that profits can rise. In other words, McDonald’s could never pay Saweetie what her image/likeness will actually bring them back in sales. The details of exactly how much Saweetie has made from this partnership are still unclear, but as a baseline, consider that BTS, an international K Pop boy band, whose reach and appeal are much bigger than hers, made roughly $8.89 million. For those of us in the working class, this number is something we’ll likely never touch but compared to the $19.208B that Mcdonald’s made last year in revenue (in the middle of a pandemic) it’s a drop in the bucket.

While Saweetie is being exploited herself, she also participates in the chain of exploitation because she is able to leverage her celebrity, her influence, and her following to get fans and supporters into drive-thru lines on behalf of the billion-dollar company. This is how celebrity (a useful tool under capitalism) proves its worth: how well can you sell? Legally, she holds no responsibility for the exploitation that follows, but through her own exploitation, she aids McDonald’s in its larger aim.

“McDonald’s and I run deep — from growing up back in Hayward, California, all through my college days — so I had to bring my icy gang in on my all-time favorites”

Saweetie

Media and the Black business class

As mentioned previously, the purpose of the McDonald’s “Famous Orders” campaign is to target “new investments in diverse-owned media content for the company in an effort to further reflect its diverse customers, workers, and communities in its marketing.” An article written by NPR on the day of the launch of the campaign states that:

“Following George Floyd’s murder last May, companies across the globe began issuing various calls to action — including more diversity in advertising, increased spending on diverse companies and investing a greater amount of money in minority-owned media companies — in an effort to connect with Black and brown consumers.”

In that same article, a representative from a “diversity equity and inclusion firm” is quoted saying ”With the uprising and the advocacy and the demands after the murder of George Floyd, really there’s been a spotlight shining on the importance of highlighting and making space for Black people, specifically Black women”. What’s important to understand here is that this kind of liberal representation politics is an age-old trick of capitalist media, but the context of this current moment makes it special. The state will always adapt.

Since 1968 the black business class has been able to take advantage of the opportunity to franchise with McDonald’s, even going so far as to establish the National Black McDonald’s Operators Association in 1972. From the start, this business class found huge success. In Marcia Chatelain’s book, Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, she states that they attributed that success not to just how “delicious” the food was, but also the “sweet satisfaction” African Americans found in “supporting black business.” However, the fragility of Black capitalism would soon begin to reveal itself, because not only were the limitations of black ownership not enough to sustain systemically impoverished communities but also McDonald’s, like all corporations, could not help but remind its black franchisees that they were indeed still black. By the 1980s, most Black franchisees found themselves almost exclusively assigned to and settled in Black and Latino communities, unable to secure franchise ownership in more lucrative (white) communities. In 1984, a man named Charles Griffis won a $4.7 million lawsuit against McDonald’s on the claim that the billion-dollar company “refused to let Blacks buy McDonald’s in white neighborhoods”. The idea that the black business class shouldn’t just be allowed to exploit their own communities, but white ones as well, was championed by many at the time as a power move for Black America, and these sorts of lawsuits continue to this day.

Through the weaponization of “representation”, McDonald’s is able to present itself in allyship with Black life. For the Saweetie Meal, a “diversity economy” is propped up, distributing crumbs to capitalist media entities that claim to represent the black community — advertising agencies, magazines, TV networks, and other ‘influencers’ as well. In this case, what these media entities are lifting up is not “black power”, but instead a different concept that is popularly known as “black buying power”. As discussed at length in Dr. Jared Ball’s The Myth and Propaganda of Black Buying Power, the term “black buying power” is not a true measure of some excess dollars that exist somewhere in Black communities (spoiler: there is no excess). Instead, it’s a mythological term created and used by media companies and advertising agencies in order to justify why businesses should spend their money advertising with their particular network or publication. In order to do this, they demonstrate their ability to reach a black audience by providing data and stats on how often black people watch their network “like” and “share” their posts or buy their magazine. These outlets function to legitimize the narrative of black consumption as black power via paid promotion, in turn, helping to drive sales for the billion-dollar company. Funny enough, at the end of the very same NPR article referenced above, you will find an editor’s note: McDonald’s is among NPR’s financial supporters.”

To create the Saweetie Meal production, a Black director is selected to film the commercials and promotions. Black consultants are brought in to give advice on the best ways to market the campaign to an “urban” audience. Ad space is spent in the pages of Ebony magazine, on BET, and in ad spots for local black radio. An African employed by NPR then gets assigned to write the article connecting the McDonald’s campaign to the movement for black lives.

All of these institutions represent the interest of capital, the black petit bourgeoisie, and other middle-class aspirational blacks, not actual working-class African people.

At every step, Black figureheads (some unknowing, some opportunists) betray the agenda for self-determination for all Africans by confusing their individual progress with collective progress.

McDonalds workers (the laboring class)

Already underpaid, overworked, and disrespected, McDonald’s employees then begin to prepare for a flood of customers who expect them to deliver not just the Saweetie Meal itself, but the “Saweetie Meal Experience” that has been crafted. While many in the “diversity economy” created around the meal receive a material benefit (even if crumbs) from their participation in the event, the workers see no change in their material condition.

McDonald’s has not invested in the production, growing, or manufacturing of any additional raw materials for the Saweetie Meal. No new types of meat, potatoes, vegetables, etc. are necessary to prepare it. The meal itself is just a repackaging of resources that the billion-dollar company already accounts for in its supply chain. Therefore, the billion-dollar company does not take on any additional expenses in the creation of the “meal”. Remember, the only money going out of the billion-dollar company in order to create this experience is in the marketing, and the marketing will more than pay for itself.

So, after increasing its profits while barely spending anything to create a new global phenomenon, what is done with the surplus? In order for these repackaged meals to make it from the factory to our mouths, labor is needed. Someone must begin the process of taking our order by quoting lyrics from Sweetie’s hit songs, over and over and over again until their shift ends. Someone must participate in the labor of dropping the fries, managing customer orders, and assembling burgers and sandwiches. They must do this alongside all of the other job functions that keep a local McDonald’s operational: keeping the drive-thru moving, brewing coffee, marking inventory, cleaning bathrooms, and providing an acceptable level of customer service to patrons on the inside, who are often there taking out their own frustrations with life on the workers. They must do this in a global pandemic, where people have died and taken huge financial losses. They must do these tasks repeatedly, almost towards infinity so that the universe of the Saweetie Meal is complete. They also do it while barely being paid enough to sustain their lives. But with the profits made from this grand event will come no additional benefits for the worker, no universal wage increase, only a barrage of entitled patrons, and increased expectations for productivity. Many of these workers are today still employed at locations run by Black franchisees.

While the masses are discouraged from standing with exploited McDonald’s workers who fight for a living wage, they are encouraged to stand in support of this hi$toric moment of celebrity progress. As the NPR article reminds us, “Saweetie marks the first female musician, and the first African-American female musician, to have a celebrity menu collaboration with McDonald’s since the company kicked off its Famous Orders program”. In turn, capitalist value systems are reinforced. The hands preparing the meal do not matter and this is why we so often observe arguments that “they don’t deserve $15/hr for the work they do”, work we are taught to devalue. “If you don’t like this job, get another one”. “Working at Mcdonald’s is not meant to pay your bills anyway.”

Don’t get it twisted, the bodies trying to break down the overly processed food don’t matter either. They are only valuable to the billion-dollar company so long as they continue to consume its product. But through the sheer act of consumption, those who enter the store to make the purchase are rewarded with the opportunity to “be closer” to the image created by the capitalist. Even if for just a few moments, just a few bites, a hierarchy is created within the working class between those who can afford the meal in the middle of the workday rush and those who prepare it.

The colonized African masses

The colonized Africans of the US, already existing in cities and towns that are literal food deserts, who are overworked, underpaid and given little time or space to invest in healthy and sovereign food rituals, come to depend on the affordability and convenience of the billion-dollar corporation. The billion-dollar corporation itself is also responsible for creating those conditions. McDonald’s is directly responsible for the destabilization of our communities and the environment through its food supply chain partnerships with companies like Tyson Foods. Tyson Foods provides the chicken product that McDonald’s serves in its stores, and in order to produce food at that large of a scale, many people must be exploited in the process. Tyson routinely puts local farmers out of business with its enormous chicken houses. Many of those farmers are forced to sell their land and seek to be absorbed by Tyson or close their farms and seek employment inside of the Tyson chicken factories. In 2014, when its chairman John H. Tyson was flexing his new billionaire status, the workers inside of those factories were struggling. Many of those workers are the same Black and brown consumers being targeted by the Famous Orders program.

As Marcia Chatelain points out in her book, due to its saturation in black America, fast food is often identified as the culprit among the research on high rates of diabetes and hypertension among African Americans. Researchers have warned that a black child born in the year 2000 has a 53% chance of developing Type 2 diabetes; the likelihood of a white child developing the potentially fatal disease is less than 30%.” From the Happy Meals our parents take us to get after a doctor’s appointment in elementary school, to the McDonald’s drive-thru being our first job, to McDonald’s serving as the place we go to get “something sweet” while fighting the stress of adulting, to becoming the location of our kid’s third birthday party once we hit our 30’s, in communities like the one where I’m from, McDonald’s is inescapable. It looms over our lives as if it was naturally occurring.

Throughout all of the land theft, exploitation, and underdevelopment that billion-dollar fast food corporations like McDonald’s participate in, they remain under little responsibility to produce safe, healthy meals for the population which it exploits; instead, only addictive and unhealthy food products that it is able to market based on addiction, monopoly and increasingly, “diversity”. The exploited African masses are undermined via this agenda. Long gone are the days of an agenda fighting for the reclamation of Black-owned farms, sustainable community food production, a worker’s economy that does not depend on the need for “fast food” and the end of exploitative environmental practices that drive us toward climate catastrophe. In its place comes the performance of progress via fandom and celebrity. Saweetie gets a “bag” and through the lens of the extreme parasocial connection which plagues the US, the entire community “gets a bag too”.

The billion-dollar company is never required or expected to transform its relationship to the colonized African masses or the physical communities which it occupies. It does not meet the demands of its exploited workers, who are among the African masses themselves, and who are still fighting for a $15/hr minimum wage. It does not import new, special, or more healthy food for purchase on its menu. While it stands to make even more profit than usual, it will not lower its prices. In fact, its prices will continue to rise (does anyone remember what the Dollar Menu used to look like!). The African masses will go on — sick, dead, and dying, with no ability to determine our diets, our lifestyles, or the dynamics of our communities. In exchange, we receive a novelty, a collector’s item — a packet of “Saweetie ’N’ Sour” sauce. A memory of yet another year that “McDonald’s saw us”.

Conclusion

So where do Africans in amerika go from here? If we can’t celebrate symbolism or parasocial relationships, what do we do? If embodying the spirit of “chasing a bag” and individual progress aren’t sufficient, what is? My answer to these questions is radical organizing to free the land from pan-european, colonial, white supremacist domination. It is this domination exactly, that has created the conditions that allow us to depend on our captive state and it’s corporations for survival. 

Across the world, Africans are building organizations that are prioritizing the necessity of food sovereignty in our communities. Organizations like the New Mexico chapter of the All African People’s Revolutionary Party are building community gardens from scratch. In Atlanta, organizations like Community Movement Builders are developing aquaponics in order to increase food production in their urban gardens. Re-establishing our connection to the land and reaffirming our ability to feed ourselves is a huge first step.

But the organization doesn’t just stop there, because access to food isn’t our only problem. The central problem still exists with the land, as Malcolm X taught us, “land is the basis of power”. In order to significantly change our relationship to food, we need power over all of the institutions in our lives. We need control of our labor: the ability to determine the kind of work we do in our communities, the benefits we receive, and the time we have away from work. This is where the development of worker-owned cooperatives as modeled in organizations like Cooperation Jackson in Mississippi come into play. We need universal healthcare of course, but as we struggle toward that aim, we also need people’s clinics that are able to provide a holistic approach to healthcare in our communities. We need political power, not in the form of Democratic party politics, but the development of independent Black worker-led parties like the Ujima People’s Progress Party in Maryland, that can contend with the state for power — power over zoning, over housing and development. We need control over the schools we attend; the ability to determine the histories our kids are taught, the development of their self-esteem and the ways they are taught to think about their relationship to the earth and to their bodies. We need control of and the eventual elimination of the police who will be sent in to sabotage these efforts at self-determination. We need an international African agenda focused on reclaiming our homeland, and with it, the natural and productive resources it contains. I am not suggesting that Saweetie or her meal have a responsibility to facilitate any of this. But I am saying that we have a responsibility to understand and then organize around our material conditions. With every individual advance that is made and marketed as an advance for our people, we lose collective progress. There are only two choices here: either we do this work ourselves or continue dying at the hands of the state. We must choose life!

GLOSSARY

  • Celebrity-centered analysis: a theory or idea that tries to explain why things happen or solutions to a problem based on celebrity affairs. This kind of analysis is not useful for understanding the material conditions of working-class people because it does not factor in the class difference. Rich celebrities and poor/working people don’t live the same lives
  • Exploitation: One party taking advantage of another party
  • Capitalism: The dominant economic system in the world today where all the resources on earth are owned and controlled by private corporate interests in order to exploit those resources for private profit
  • Self-determination: The process by which a person or community controls their own life
  • Parasocial relationship: One-sided relationships, where one person extends emotional energy, interest and time, and the other party, the persona, is completely unaware of the other’s existence

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Salifu Sesay Mack is an editor at Hood Communist and a member of BAP and the Lowcountry Action Committee.