Toward the end of the Disco Decade, McDonald’s found itself with a PR problem. The restaurant’s coffee stirrer, a long, plastic stick with a small spoon on one end and the chain’s iconic emblem on the other, had attracted the wrong kind of attention. As helpful as it was to coffee drinkers, it turns out the stir stick’s design made it equally useful to another group: cocaine dealers and users.
That wouldn’t have been McDonald’s problem, except then-recently passed U.S. federal legislation outlawed the possession of drug paraphernalia, with or without the drugs. The definition of ‘paraphernalia’ was so broad, said critics, that almost anything could qualify. To illustrate the point, a representative of the trade association representing smoke shop vendors publicly mocked the law’s wording, saying, “This,” holding up one of the restaurant’s coffee stirrers, “is the best cocaine spoon in town and it’s free with every cup of coffee at McDonald’s.”
Missing the intended irony of the statement and instead taking it literally, the president of the National Federation of Parents
for Drug-Free Youth, backed by thousands of parent constituents, contacted the CEO of McDonald’s, demanding he remove the offending utensils from their restaurants. After some back-and-forth, mounting public pressure, and fearing backlash from the restaurant’s family-oriented customer base, he agreed, and in 1979 the coffee stirrer was removed from the chain’s 4,500 locations.
Almost two decades earlier. U.S. President John F. Kennedy, in 1962, delivered an impassioned address to the nation from Space Center Houston regarding the U.S. effort to land an American on the moon.
“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win....”
The Apollo space program was wildly expensive, even by today’s standards. Congressional funding support was by no means unanimous, and broad swaths of the citizenry questioned the value of exploring the moon compared to addressing the social issues of the era right here on planet Earth. Nonetheless, on July 20, 1969 the world watched transfixed as American astronaut, Neil Armstrong, became the first person to walk on the moon.
So, what’s the point of intersection between these two very different episodes in U.S. cultural history? What we’ve seen over time is that when the collective voice of constituents and consumers becomes too loud to be ignored, change happens. When political leadership actually leads, and national resources are applied, challenges are met.
We will be successful addressing climate change if we can unite citizen activism with political will and employ, as Kennedy put it so eloquently, “...the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
We’ve already put a man on the moon, and eliminating more plastic spoons would actually be helpful right now. We can do this.