Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Are you old enough to buy that Happy Meal? Part 4

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fourth and final part in a series discussing fast-food giant McDonald's decision to feature Happy Meal toys inspired by the PG-13 rated Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. Part 1 can be found here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.

Here we are, four parts later, and what have we learned? That's a good question. Let's put it all together.

As I mentioned at the outset, even the most simplistic of looks at the PG-13 rating tells you that the film has some mature content - mature content that's, at best, questionable fare for those yet to reach their teenage years. Is this to say that PG-13 rated movies are just chock full of morally repugnant teachings for impressionable youth? Uh, no. A PG-13 rating, or any other rating for that matter, says nothing to the film's morality or social value.

A brief example: If you set the PG-rated SpongeBob SquarePants Movie and the R-rated Passion of the Christ in front of a conservative Christian parent and asked for their opinions on the films' content, they might object to the crudeness and "sexual uncertainty" of SpongeBob, while finding nothing ethically objectionable in The Passion.* However, just because a parent deems a film morally "good" doesn't mean they're labeling the flick as appropriate for their children.

Let's put it another way. The majority of Americans would agree that marriage is a good thing. But does that mean toddlers should be getting hitched? Of course not. It's simply an issue of appropriateness - toddlers, pre-teens, etc. are by and large unready to deal with the content present in more young adult-oriented films.**

This is an important point, and I hope I've fully explained myself. The question of PG-13 themed Happy Meal toys is not an issue of what a terrible role model Jack Sparrow is for children***, but rather of the maturity needed to comprehend and deal with the themes and images present in movies with more restrictive ratings.

The opening scene of Pirates II includes a rather gruesome shot of some damned soul getting his eyes plucked out by a raven. The script features a bit of sex-related humor. A father forcefully flogs his son. Without question, this isn't the stuff of toddler lullabies.

There's no denying that there's a significant gap between the content presented in Pirates II, and the expressed audience targeted by Happy and Mighty Kids meals. Additionally, even the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at Disney World (which, lest we forget, was actually the inspiration for the films) is not a ride suggested for Preschoolers (link). And for what's worth, I would bet most would agree with me in saying that the ride is quite tamer than the films (for one, no creepy Kraken. Blech.).

This all presents a puzzling dilemma. Marketing executives (usually) aren't stupid - if a targeted demographic has no interest in a certain movie, they're not going to run a promotion in conjunction with the film. So what happened? In all honesty, I'm not sure.

Perhaps McDonald's felt forced by its contract**** with Disney to run a Pirates promotion. Perhaps McDonald's decided the average Mighty Kids Meal consumer was an audience ripe for Pirates promotions and the Happy Meal-munching toddlers simply got pulled along for the ride (as Happy and Mighty Kids Meals share the same toy). Perhaps Disney targeted younger audiences with their advertising and told McDonald's that they would make a fortune by promoting Dead Man's Chest. Perhaps Disney and McDonald's figured that parents would ignore the PG-13 rating and send their kids to the movie anyway. Perhaps the marketing execs wanted to create artificial demand for their movie by bringing the young 'uns in.

Who knows.

Clearly, something was off, but pin-pointing where things went wrong or who was "to blame" are not questions I feel capable of answering.

But I can tell you that regardless of "who started it," McDonald's and Disney should be somewhat ashamed of themselves for promoting the movie to consumers who they knew would be younger than the recommended viewing audience. That may sound a bit harsh, but just because the youngsters are interested in the product doesn't make it right to cater to that interest.*****

However, it would be disingenuous to blast these corporate powers too much. When all is said and done, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is a fairly mild PG-13; the most off-color humor is subtle enough that younger viewers wouldn't catch it (link)****** and while dark by Disney standards, the tone is still far from bleak or somber. Parents could certainly do worse than to let their children see Pirates II.

Until McDonald's starts running Basic Instinct 2 Happy Meal promotions******* or the Walt Disney Company changes the Pirates of the Caribbean theme song to read "We kidnap and ravish and don't give a hoot" from "kidnap and ravage," there probably isn't too much to worry about (full song lyrics found here). However, the apparent blatant disregard for the rating system (and in the case of McDonald's, duplicitous and lethargic customer service) is cause for me to be a little disappointed in the two supposedly family-based corporations.

I hope these 4 articles have been interesting to you and perhaps a bit informative as well. There are tons of questions and issues I didn't mention or fully deal with throughout this series (for example, would I really want my toddler playing with a skull-shaped Magic 8 ball?! And: is it all a moot point since parents typically buy the meals for the kids?), but I believe I've done my best to fairly present what I felt was the most important information. That being said, I have this feeling that much like the Pirates of the Caribbean, a follow-up is probably coming somewhere down the road.

If you have any questions, concerns, or simply thoughts on the subject of your own, don't hesitate to email me or leave a comment. And as always, thanks for reading.

*On the other hand, a Jewish parent might view Mel Gibson's Passion as shameful "sado-pornography." This disagreement in views highlights the fact that a film's morality (or lack thereof) is a far too subjective standard to examine in this context.
**We all know how well middle-schoolers fare in serious romantic relationships...
***Though such an argument could be made...
****Now expired.
*****See Camel, Joe.
******One quote in particular stands out as pretty crude on the quotes page linked, but I didn't pick it up until a friend brought it to my attention after the show. If you don't see it, I'm not going to play the pervert by pointing it out and explaining the sexual undertones. Sorry.
*******Totally a joke. A special DVD edition of Basic Instinct came with a pen shaped like an ice pick (that's what the picture is of). To my knowledge no special edition Happy Meals have been packaged with ice pick toys.

As a final note, Toy Mania.com had a great page (found here) featuring all the McDonald's Pirates of the Caribbean Happy Meals. Various other images taken from the McDonald's website, the Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest website, the Apple Trailers Dead Man's Chest page, the DVD Scan Basic Instinct page, and this ABC News webpage. These parties and these parties alone are fully responsible for creating/providing these images, not myself.


Amanda said...

ha ha i love it! bravo mr. baker-i ver much enjoy your outlook on life. :-)

Tim Nance said...

Nice journalism. Thanks for the series. Keep up the good work!
(btw, I didn't notice the subtle quote either until now.)

Anonymous said...

Very interesting reporting, CJ. I find it a bit ironic, however, that you worked at McDonald's all summer!!!!

Anonymous said...

It's a fair point, anonymous.

Here's my explanation: would me quitting at McDonald's or not working there have made any kind of statement? Doubtful. I would venture this post is statement enough. Besides, if I hadn't been working there, I never would have even noticed the PG-13 promotion.

Certainly a good question, hope my answer makes sense.

Tim Nance said...

Yeah, I think the post leaves quite a message! And it's true; with any big corp, self-sacrifice of a job goes almost unnoticed.

ManNMotion said...

Man, this is a good and well thought out post! I'm giong to have to step up my game!

Barb said...

What a lot of work you put into your Happy Meals series of posts! When's your next project so I can be sure to come back?

Keep up the good work.. and you put a lot of us bloggers to shame =)