In 2004, Super Size Me was everywhere. The documentary dared to point out McDonald’s food is bad for you. And suddenly people had to stop and go, “Huh!”
From documentary maker Morgan Spurlock (replete with handlebar moustache), it followed in the footsteps of the likes of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (2002).
We thought we’d revisit the thing almost 20 years later as, believe it or not, McDonald’s continues to succeed on the global business platform majigger.
The Pursuit of a Feast in Super Size Me
Spurlock’s goal in the documentary was to eat nothing but McDonald’s every day, for every meal, for a whole month.
The experiment ran from 1st February-2nd March 2003.
During that period, if he was offered the supersize option his rules meant he’d have to take the deal. It was later worked out he’d consume, on average, 5,000 calories a day. This led to significant weight gain of 24.5 pounds over one month.
He also suffered from mood swings and sexual dysfunction, whilst there were also claims his organs took a battering. One doctor references Nic Cage in Leaving Las Vegas as a similar exploit to Spurlock’s antics.
Coming out of the documentary, the general gist was—eating fast food isn’t good for you and will make you gain weight.
This message has since been criticised a tad as, yes, anyone should be able to work that out. Some scientists criticised Spurlock’s experiment as a bit idiotic:
- Eat lots of fast food
- Stop exercising
Yes, that’ll make you gain a lot of weight. There was also criticism of Spurlock, with suggestions he’d overstated the effects on his organs for dramatic effect. The way the documentary goes, it’s made out his life is in danger.
Whereas, in reality, the insidious nature of the fast food industry is you can go on eating that crap for many years before the major, deleterious health effects kick in.
However, it’s important to remember the impact of Super Size Me in 2004. It was something of a cultural phenomenon, which the documentary Blackfish managed in similar fashion in 2013.
We think what Spurlock did is just make it clear eating this food is very bad for you. As simplistic a way to do that as his experiment was, it hit home.
Simply put, a lot of people eat fast food and don’t think it’s doing them any particular bother. Back in our university days, pretty much everyone we met from that ’90s generation thought eating at McDonald’s was a perfectly normal thing to do all the time. It just didn’t occur to them eating fast food was a bad thing to do.
We think Spurlock’s effort was commendable for just stating it how it is. It was the reality check some people needed.
McDonald’s suffered a major negative reaction after the documentary and discontinued the super size range only six weeks after the film launched.
So, yes, looking back almost 20 years on it seems to carry an obvious message. It’s just one that needed stating at the time.
And watching the documentary now, our main criticism is Spurlock’s decision to include his highly goddamn irritating munching and crunching throughout the film.
It didn’t occur to him to switch his microphone off for that, so we have the joy of listening to him munching through his super sized food. For misophonia sufferers this is a film to avoid.
Otherwise, it’s still an important movie. A landmark moment, you could say. You can see that reflected in the box office results. The documentary cost $65,000 to make, yet it made $22.2 million in returns. It was also nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar.
And fast food chains like McDonald’s have since had to work on their image to try and promote healthier vibes.
It seems to have worked, as they’re doing very well on a global scale. But menus are still horribly unhealthy as the global obesity epidemic worsens.
Whilst some people bleat about “personal responsibility” required to control it, the simple fact is these organisation spend many millions of marketing campaigns designed on hooking kids at an early age. And it works.
The Sequel! Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!
In 2017 Spurlock launched a sequel, although a widespread release didn’t become available until September 2019.
The documentary explores how the fast food industry has rebranded itself to appear more of a healthy option for consumers.
Spurlock also has a go at running a fast food restaurant to highlight how a rebrand is more to create the illusion of change. Rather than it genuinely being a good thing.
There’s no way Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken! could replicate the cultural impact of its predecessor, but it’s still an interesting insight into the nature of the fast food industry and how it’s evolving.
It launched at a time when a more health conscious world is turning to plant-based products and the likes of the vegan Beyond Burger.
Whilst these things aren’t as healthy as is often promoted, they are at least a better alternative to a high-fat slab of beef burger. And more beneficial for the planet from a environmental perspective.
The fast food industry is enormously destructive to the environment, sadly.
Change is very slow and incremental here and McDonald’s isn’t going away anytime soon. But you can make the difference. Choose healthier alternatives and adopt a vegan leaning diet with plenty of fresh vegetables.