The first I heard of the new McDonald's TV advertising campaign was on receipt on a phone call to the Grief Encounter offices first thing on Monday morning. The caller, a widow with a 7 year-old son, seeking support on how to handle her child asking why 'The mum on TV thinks a burger will make her little boy happy' when nothing he's 'ever tried has made him happy daddy has gone'. She tells me he says he thinks he will 'always be as sad as he was the day he died, but he has learnt to be strong'. This was just the first of many calls and emails we received that morning, and continuing into this week.
How can I summarise what's happened over the last few days regarding McDonald's? First of all, I have to be transparent that as I write this I feel I am feeding into the high street brand's master plan; launching an emotionally driven campaign to gain maximum publicity. However, the same could be said of ourselves in the hope of putting the interests of bereaved children and young people in the spotlight. To clarify, as one the UK's leading childhood bereavement organisations, we have in fact welcomed McDonald's, a staple household brand name, including a bereaved family in mainstream media, and helping to continue the conversation about parental bereavement. However, did they recognise that they attempted to speak to their audience via accessing one of the things we fear the most, without thinking through the impact on one of our most vulnerable sections of society? 1 in 29 children are bereaved of a parent or sibling by the time they are 16yrs of age, so this is a huge number of children and surviving parents that will resonate with this storyline.
Bereavement is a hugely sensitive subject to tackle in the media, and should be done with upmost sensitivity and respect. The beginning into the middle of the advert headed in the right direction; and viewers were drawn in to the storyline - in fact it reminded me of our own Mother's Day video, which received much support online. It does not trouble us to show a bereaved child upset, confused, searching for answers as to what his lost father was like as a person. This is normal, expected, something we see daily. What we are troubled by is the subliminal messaging; the fact that although his mother is talking to him openly, he is being told he is nothing like his father, leaving him disappointed and angry. Then, matters take a turn for the worse by perpetuating one of the main myths in the grieving process - that there are quick fix solutions, simple answers, a cure - in this case, in the shape of a burger. One of our clients came to us with the following to say, 'the advert is fundamentally dishonest and untruthful as it makes a young person's grief and need to identify with his dead parent entirely superficial by reducing it to being about selling burgers. It is particularly offensive as a child's emotions are being represented, the boy is clearly under 18 by appearance, and as we know children are vulnerable to suggestion. The subliminal message here is that emotional problems can be eased by eating.'
To continue the path of cynicism, as Piers Morgan said to me yesterday on Good Morning Britain, I can't help but think their creative team have seen an opportunity with the increase of press of late aimed at mental health campaigns for bereaved children and young people; most specifically pushed along by the Princes Harry and William, and the Duchess of Cambridge. Did they see this as a way to piggyback off a particularly vulnerable section of society, attempting to emulate their journey in order to ultimately sell fast food?
Of course, there are two sides to every story, and some feedback has been positive. One family we spoke to yesterday said 'My dad has spoken little of my mum since she died. If the advert helped one bereaved parent to talk with their child, as the actors did in the ad, then I think it has done its job.'
The overall issues it throws up however, are big and us, the viewing public, are left with nowhere to turn after watching it. Perhaps McDonald's should have thought about their corporate responsibility with this linking with a charity such as ourselves to provide a source of information and support to those affected by it, or pledged to support a project financially that would benefit bereaved children in the long term.
Children are very good at fooling adults into thinking they are 'fine', and the resultant impact of this is for them to hide their emotions and secrets. in Winnicottian terms, they 'develop a very true and very false self'. Parentally bereaved young people live in an extremely childlike state of abject fear, as if they are in a new world but without the one person they trust most, have been guided and specially loved by. Research illustrates bereaved children will be emotionally and psychologically damaged following the premature death of a parent (Gilbert 2015) without early intervention in the form of support - 1/3 experiencing mental health issues in later life.
Why then are we co-complicit in the myth that the children are fine, resilient, have just gotten over it, such as in this ad? McDonald's are right in retracting it, and taking responsibility that they were complicit in implying that a fish burger was all that's needed to relieve the pain and suffering from something so traumatic. We want to make children feel supported in the right way, so they don't have to turn to fast fix solutions which cause damage in the long term -after all a Happy Meal does not equal a Happy Life.