More than Just a Chicken Fight: Social Responsibility and Fast-Food Consumerism

In the late summer days of August 2019, Americans lined up outside Popeye’s restaurants in the sweltering heat of one of the hottest years on record for a chicken sandwich. A chicken sandwich. Bread, chicken, some kind of sauce, and pickles. Restaurants ran out of sandwiches; people bid thousands of dollars on eBay for a fast food item that sells in stores for less than the price of a grande mocha from Starbucks. In a season rife with ICE raids, democratic debates, overseas protests, and ongoing domestic political turmoil, the debut of a chicken sandwich should hardly have registered as relevant on our media landscapes, much less ignited a minor Twitter war between competing corporations and split Americans into two distinct groups. But it did. When faced with a litany of serious issues that feel too big for a single person to address, we have to start somewhere. For some, this first step into political awareness and activism is a protest or a local election, for others, it is a chicken sandwich. We have a responsibility to stand up for our values through protests, actions, and written words. Our consumer decisions should reflect those values as well. No longer were we only separated by political party, geographic region, our opinion on whether or not the government should continue to produce pennies or any of the other controversial issues that continually divide us. In August, the hot, new division was Chick-fil-A or Popeye’s.  

Novelty has provoked consumer response in the past, but the explosive popularity of the Popeye’s chicken sandwich goes beyond that of a typical new fast-food menu item. Sandwiched between the soft brioche bun and crispy chicken are questions of morality and consumerism that should influence many of our choices. As consumers, we have a responsibility to consider factors far more complex than preference or price when making economic decisions. To choose Popeye’s over Chick-fil-A is not simply to choose novelty over a classic, or to remain loyal to a favorite restaurant chain. Even this decision carries political connotations–to choose Popeye’s is not only to reject Chick-fil-A’s food but also to withdraw financial support for their anti-LGBTQ agenda. We are not simply purchasing products, but financially supporting the ideologies of the corporations who market them. We are not consumers, but mindful consumers who must consider the ethical, environmental, and cultural implications of every economic decision. And when these corporations deviate from the values that we should regard as desirable, the values that people fight for in our protests and political campaigns–inclusivity, compassion, charity, environmental protection–we respond accordingly. Chick-fil-A is hardly the first corporation to receive backlash for their political views, and they are definitely not the last. Frequenters of the fitness studio SoulCycle recently called for boycotts after news that Stephen Ross, the chairman of the company that owns SoulCycle, held a fundraiser for President Trump. We should expect political correctness and social responsibility not only from each other but also from the corporations that we support. This expectation is optimistic considering corporations tend to value profits first and social responsibility maybe third or fourth, but many businesses have discovered that a disposition towards inclusivity can be monetized. It is not uncommon to see brands that market to our sense of morality: chocolate bars that promise to donate a dollar from each bar to rainforest conservation, fitness studios that advertise personal growth and well-being rather than reaching a certain standard of beauty, and dozens of others that exploit our desire to feel that we are making positive change with our money. 

One of the common complaints about our current capitalist system is the imbalance of power between people and large corporations. Individual people feel insignificant in comparison to multi-billion dollar companies, especially since these companies were granted the privilege to influence the political sphere with the Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court decision. But ultimately corporations only profit if they respond to changes in consumer preferences, meaning they must also respond to changes in our social and cultural ideology. Choosing Popeye’s over Chick-fil-A is a politically charged decision and an attempt to leverage our consumer power in this capitalist system. While we may lack the resources to significantly influence the overall economic system and change the capitalist goal of acquiring as much wealth as possible with little regard for others, we should express our opinions by spending or withholding our money. Though the introduction of the Popeye’s chicken sandwich did not pose a serious threat to Chick-fil-A’s financial success, it still provided an opportunity for consumers to make their discomfort with Chick-fil-A’s anti-LGBTQ views known. 

This discomfort, particularly with Chick-fil-A though it extends to other corporations as well, is not new. In my hometown, those who considered themselves allies of the LGBTQ community actively boycotted our local Chick-fil-A franchises on the basis of morality. It seems rather ironic that Chick-fil-A’s reputation rests both on having some of the most polite employees in the fast-food industry and actively discouraging progress for a specific group of people, but Chick-fil-A was founded in the South; it is a reflection of the culture from which it was created. Truett Cathy founded the first Chick-fil-A in 1967 in Atlanta, Georgia. Like Chick-fil-A, the American South has a reputation for simultaneously having the sweetest manners and the worst conditions in the nation for women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community. Chick-fil-A, though not known for racism, still represents Southern hospitality. The sweet Southerners of the antebellum era for whom Southern hospitality gets its name owned plantations; they owned other people. What could be more characteristic of this concept of Southern hospitality than distracting from shady actions with polished manners and a warm smile. This is what the South is known for: welcoming others, befriending neighbors, unless they are the feared Other. In the antebellum age, this Other was people of color; now, it is members of the LGBTQ community. Chick-fil-A is sweet – sickeningly so. 

We must see through this shiny veneer and recognize that their money is not funding socially responsible activities. For the modern consumer who values inclusivity and morality, Popeye’s offered a guilt-free alternative. In August of 2019, a subset of consumers tried to use the capitalist system that has been designed to disenfranchise us to express their opinions and support for a corporation that aligned more closely with their morals. It’s 2019 – we want to have our chicken sandwiches and eat them too. Preferably with a side of fries rather than guilt. 

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