When my mother died when I was 7, child bereavement wasn’t spoken about. If it had been then perhaps I would have felt less shame and guilt.
I didn’t see the McDonald’s advert when it came out last week, but the subsequent story that hit the press yesterday certainly caught my eye. Apparently, the fast-food firm had made a fantastically offensive advert that cynically exploited child bereavement.
With my imagination running wild, I tuned in, expecting horrific scenes of distraught orphans being forced to, oh I don’t know… Wait hand and foot on Ronald McDonald himself.
I didn’t know what I expected to see but what I saw – a twee tale of a young lad who wants to know more about his dead dad – fell way, way short of being offensive.
Let me set out my credentials here: my mother died when I was 7 as a result of being an alcoholic for the last 5 years of her life. Frankly, if you are saying you are “sickened” and “disgusted” by this advert then you should go and get checked out by a professional because that seems to be an overreaction on a number of levels.
Is it another case of Generation Snowflake strikes again?
The story is simple: a boy asks his mum what his dad was like. She tells her son that he was awesome. He had shiny shoes, women loved him, expert sportsman. The boy – seemingly a total loser – looks sad. They’re pretty different. But his face lights up once they arrive at a McDonald’s and, as he eats a Filet-O-Fish, his mum says: “That was your dad’s favourite too.”
While I am in no way an apologist for McDonald’s, this is hardly the most exploitative manoeuvre in the history of capitalism. Yes, I’m looking at you, Coca-Cola, and your 1971 co-opting of peace and love, aka I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke.
This is also not the first time sadness or loss has been used to shift a few sales. Imagine a John Lewis Christmas advert with Lana Del Rey singing *N Sync’s Gone plays softly in the background. A fatherless boy is unwrapping a brand new Electrolux jug kettle. His mother smiles fondly. “Hot water was your dad’s favourite, too.” Great, huh? Almost as good as the one where the old man is left on the moon to die alone.
But McDonald’s is not a cosy, middle-class brand. So unlike John Lewis with “its best advert yet”, a “poignant” and “sensitive” work of art, McDonald’s are “over-salted wankers” with an advert that is “shameless” and “absolutely shit”.
It’s classism in it’s basic form because all those things were actually said on Twitter about the McDonald’s advert.
When I started writing this post yesterday McDonald’s had apologised for any offence caused, but said the advert would continue to be aired. Great, I thought. This is hardly a Kendall Jenner/Pepsi debacle. But by the end of the day, with the complaints mounting, the ad was pulled. What a cock-up.
When my mother died, in 1977, child bereavement wasn’t spoken about. It was swept under the carpet, pretty much like my mother’s death was. No one talked to me about how I felt. Back to school I went. I didn’t even attend her funeral. Children were not expected to grieve. They were resilient, they had short memories, they’d move on.
Today child bereavement – while not exactly front and centre – is at least a talked-about topic. The mental health issues that can arise from suppressing childhood grief have had high-profile spokesmen in the form of Princes Harry and William, for example.
There are also two charities working on behalf of bereaved children – neither of which were around in 1977. Child Bereavement UK kept quiet on the McDonald’s advert, but another charity, Grief Encounter did not. Their spokeswoman was on LBC yesterday and was so livid about the advert that I began to doubt my own feelings.
Was I in fact offended and upset? I thought about it for a while but it turned out I wasn’t. It seems my generation have a much thicker skin than the generation that is following.
Crucially, what a lot of people spewing outrage all over social media have misunderstood is this: the death of the boy’s dad is not solved by him eating a Filet-O-Fish. The message isn’t “Don’t worry about your dead parent – eat some fast food!” Simply, he is pleased he finally has something in common with his dad.
When your parent dies when you are young, anything, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential, that helps you feel closer to them is a revelation and a comfort.
Today, 40 years after she died, I am still interested to hear information about my mother. About the person she was before she turned into the alcoholic who ended up dying alone in bed to be found by me.
By all accounts, in her last few years she was a different person because of the alcohol. I’m told I have her dark sense of humour. That I look like her. But all I have are bad memories of her being drunk. Of her being angry. And of me being the last person to be with her before she died.
I’m the one who left her alone. Left her alone which led her to go to bed. To die.
If child bereavement had been discussed openly when my own mother died – and you can’t get much more open than an advert on prime-time TV – then perhaps my grief may have felt less like a secret and shameful thing. Maybe I wouldn’t be still blaming myself for her death 40 years on.
August 31st will be the 40th anniversary of my mother’s death and I feel no less blame, shame or guilt. I’ve just managed to deal with it a little better.