Story: Gotta Give Us a Yardstick to Measure the Meaning of What Happens

I read an editorial in yesterday’s NY Times about mounting opposition to McDonald’s Happy Meals, and I was struck how, by reframing the argument, McDonald’s CEO completely shifted the meaning of the story – as far as he was concerned, anyway. First, the facts: 1. There are 640 calories in a standard Happy Meal, more than half the U.S.D.A. daily allowance for a sedentary child aged 4 to 8, as well as about half the allotment of fat.

2. McDonald's markets to little kids, who don’t know a calorie from a cantaloupe, and covet the toy that comes with the meal as much as all that irresistible sugar and fat.

3. There is external pressure on McDonald's to curb Happy Meals calorie count and how they’re marketed.

So how did McDonald’s handle it? No way they could argue that all that fat and sugar is good for kids.  Or even that it’s the parents’ own damn fault for taking them to McDonald’s in the first place (after all, no good comes from alienating the designated driver, especially if she’s the one picking up the tab).

So instead McDonald’s CEO Jim Skinner sidestepped the issue altogether, accusing those calling for changes in Happy Meals of seeking “to deprive families of choice.”

And in doing so he handed us another yardstick by which to measure the meaning of the anti-Happy Meals movement.  A yardstick that casts the “food police,” as he calls them, as bullies targeting families. Yikes! Hey, he’s hoping we’ll say, no one tells me what to do. It’s my choice.  That’s what made America great, aren’t we the land of the free and the home of the brave for gosh darn sakes alive?

Same event, different meaning. In life as in literature, it’s point of view that determines the meaning we assign to the facts.

But wait, did you see my yardstick?  The one I stuck in the sand in the beginning by saying that the CEO had reframed the story . . . as far as he was concerned, anyway? The subtext of which neatly translates to: geez, something that blatant wouldn’t even fool an average sedentary 4 to 8 year-old.

The point is, all stories have a yardstick up front -- it's something we're wired to expect. They clue us into the meaning, weight and shape of what’s to follow.  So that we can . . . follow that is!