Ever wonder what happens to the smiling children McDonald’s uses to promote their food? Do they become McDonald’s super fans and receive free fast-food for the rest of their lives?
It turns out, in the case of Ben Williamson, who is now the senior international media director of PETA, it is just the opposite.
When Ben was just 7 years old in 1993, McDonald’s came to Hampstead. A well-to-do part of North London, McDonald’s had fought for years for the approval to open one of their fast-food chains there. And in an effort to lure the clientele, the fast-food brand turned their focus on the children.
“To drum up positive press for the opening and drown out naysayers, the company’s marketing department entered the scene," he told QZ.
To do this, they held a competition. Held among the local Hampstead schools, the assignment was to write 12 words explaining why they liked McDonald's, beginning with “I like McDonald’s because…” According to Williamson, his entry, “I like McDonald’s because there’s a wide variety of food and my pal Ronald thinks so, too” was too good to pass up.
As the winner of the competition, Williamson was awarded the privilege of cutting the ribbon in front of his classmates and press, in addition to being served a Filet-O-Fish sandwich on camera, because even at the young age of 7, Williamson was already a pescatarian.
Fast-forward 17 years to Williamson studying ethics at college, where he was reading the writings of Plato, Rawls, and Bentham. It was the works by Bentham on the capacity of animals to suffer, that especially impacted him - and led him to become a vegan. Not long after, Williamson joined PETA.
When asked by a reporter how he feels about his past association with McDonald’s given his dedication to protecting animals, Williamson admits feeling regret, especially once he learned, “McDonald’s - and almost every other corporation in the fast-food industry - pays its suppliers to cram animals into filthy pens and sheds, mutilate them, and ship them to slaughterhouses where their throats are cut.”
“My brush with McDonald’s was my first exposure to the seductive powers of major corporations.”
Now, Williamson’s PR efforts focus on the importance of changing public perception and educating the public - “The experience taught me the power public relations can have - and now I want to use it for the greater good, not evil. Now I work every day to promote a peaceful vegan society.”
The good news? It seems like major corporations are catching on to the changing public perceptions, with many giant corporations, including Tyson, Bareburger, IKEA, and even McDonald’s, coming out with vegan options in the last year.
The future's looking bright according to Ben Williamson, who is adamant that, “If one consumer could break his shackles, do a 180-degree turn before the age of 30, and go from being a McDonald’s poster child to PETA’s senior international media director, other consumers can adapt, too.”