It's hard to think of a more enduring brand than McDonald's. Since its humble beginnings in 1955, the Golden Arches has revolutionized the food industry from farm to table, pioneering a fast-food nation and establishing itself as the world's largest restaurant chain and a global mega-brand in the process. Its luminous logo is universally recognizable and touted by many as a symbol of progress and prosperity, not to mention cheap hamburgers.
Armed with one of the world's top 20 corporate advertising war chests, aggressive promotion has played a pivotal role in McDonald's ascent to dominance. For decades, "We were that famous Norman Rockwell family experience," opined Larry Light, McDonald's global chief marketing officer in a Nation's Restaurant News article  celebrating the restaurant giant's golden anniversary last spring.
However, after years of waning customer enthusiasm, McDonald's is desperate for a new feel. After all, Norman Rockwell won't get you far in a cultural landscape where what sells — from hip-hop to fast-food — is driven not by consumer nostalgia but incredibly sophisticated, youth-obsessed advertising strategies. Or put another way, quaint and wholesome imagery falls short compared to guerrilla marketing hyping iPods and Play Stations, for example, in urban corridors and suburban shopping malls alike.
So McDonald's is making the switch to a coveted sweet spot: 18- to 24-year olds. This transition — backed by $1.5 billion annually for branding efforts  — is most clearly embodied in the “i'm lovin' it” campaign, which features hip music, youthful images, and sports and music celebrities. Light calls it, “the most radical change in our executional approach since 1967." He adds, “It’s important to remember that this is about more than just advertising. It’s about a new spirit and attitude  that is part of the McDonald’s brand today.”
To show that it means business, the Golden Arches has partnered with Burrell Communications  to help maximize its impact with young consumers. Burrell Communications, who bills close to $200 million annually, describes itself as being located “at ground zero of the culture quake.” According to its website, “We penetrate consumer psyches on all fronts... not just TV, radio and print but at the rave, under the snowboard, in the chatroom... and we don't let up until you're on every neuron.”
But a ticking time bomb is threatening to explode the grand visions of McDonald's brand gurus. On the campuses, at the coffee shops, and in the chatrooms, very serious conversations are taking place about harsh realities concealed behind glossy logos. In the case of McDonald's, this conversation centers around workers in Florida who pick tomatoes for the chain's sandwiches and salads. While you're listening, don't be surprised if you hear words such as “sweatshop” and, in the most extreme cases, “modern-day slavery.” 
This is, in fact, much more than a conversation among a handful of people; it's a full-fledged social movement. Following the lead of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW)  — a grassroots organization comprised of mostly Mexican, Guatemalan and Haitian immigrant workers in southwest Florida — students organizing was crucial in pressuring Taco Bell, another fast-food giant chasing the youth market, to take meaningful steps  to improve wages and working conditions in its tomato supply chain. Throughout the four-year boycott, student activists cut or blocked campus contracts with Taco Bell at 22 universities and high schools  nationwide, including high-profile victories at UCLA, University of Chicago, and University of Notre Dame. Along the way, they turned Taco Bell's image on its head, confirming that brands truly are the corporate Achilles heel.
The CIW is now seeking to expand the precedents established by the Taco Bell agreement throughout the rest of the fast-food industry. If successful, this would mean much more than an extra $6,000 - $7,000 annually in the pockets of workers who must currently pick two tons of tomatoes just to make $50 in a day without overtime pay or any benefits whatsoever. It would mean respect for workers within East Cost agriculture, an industry with a history as brutal as the Florida summer sun is hot.
Yet at a time when McDonald's is joining its brand at the hip to the perceptions and preferences of young consumers, the company has taken a path that threatens to undercut the wage gains won by farmworkers in the Taco Bell boycott and to push workers back away from the table where decisions are made that affect their lives. Instead of learning from the mistakes of Taco Bell, McDonald's is on a path to repeat them.
In that case, let the target market revolt begin. They'll wish they had never bailed on Norm.
Sean Sellers is co-coordinator of Student/Farmworker Alliance, a national network of youth and students organizing with the CIW to eliminate sweatshops and modern-day slavery in the fields. From March 26 - April 4, SFA activists will join a caravan of CIW farmworkers from Immokalee, Florida to Chicago, Illinois — home of McDonald's — to educate consumers about the labor conditions in McDonald's tomato supply chain and to demand real rights for farmworkers. For more information on the "Real Rights Tour" and April 1 mobilization in Chicago, including daily photos and updates from the road, click here.