How Kanye West and Kim Kardashian use their public love of chains like McDonald's and Chick-fil-A to get rich off of low-brow culture
Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images
- Kanye West's Chick-fil-A-inspired song "Closed on Sunday" is just the latest in his and Kim Kardashian West's long relationship with fast-food chains like McDonald's and In-N-Out.
- Kim Kardashian West used partnerships with fast-food chains like McDonald's and Carl's Jr. to become a household name, with Carl's Jr.'s then-CEO saying that Kris Jenner begged him to put Kim in an ad.
- Kanye has long been obsessed with fast food from a branding perspective, once tweeting, "McDonald's is my favorite brand."
- Today, Kim charges brands up to $500,000 for a single Instagram post. But, she continues to highlight her love for fast food on social media and in paparazzi photos.
- Fast food is one of the few connections that Kanye has with the average American in 2019, as the millionaire rapper faces controversy after controversy.
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I have listened to the fourth track on Kanye West's new album, "Jesus Is King," at least a dozen times since it was released on Friday.
"Closed on Sunday," West raps, "You my Chick-fil-A."
The song continues with its semi-dreary, semi-desperate rhythm, rising and falling, then ending abruptly when West yelps - there is no other word but "yelp" - "Chick-fil-A!"
As someone who reports on fast food, I pay close attention to chains like Chick-fil-A and McDonald's. Over the years, I have come to realize that Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West do, too. Understanding fast food is key to understanding the Kardashian Wests - and how they're making millions of dollars a year.
Kim Kardashian is a longtime fast-food fanatic
Photo by Chris Polk/FilmMagic/Getty Images
Kim Kardashian's ties to McDonald's span more than a decade. Back in 2008, she and Khloe attended McDonald's "Big Mac 40th Birthday Party at Project Beach House." It is an event I have thought about at least once a month since I discovered it while looking for McDonald's photos on Getty Images back in 2013.
At the time, Kim was far from the international celebrity she is today. Kim and her mother/manager Kris Jenner used fast-food partnerships to turn Kim - who was largely known for her leaked sex tape and for being Paris Hilton's reality show sidekick - into a household name.
Back in 2015, the then-CEO of CKE Restaurants, Andy Puzder, told me that Jenner called him to try and score Kim a coveted spot in a Carl's Jr. commercial, hoping to launch her daughter into mainstream fame.
"The Sports Illustrated swimsuit models that we use in our ads, like Hannah Ferguson and Samantha Hoopes … tell me that the girls actually talk about 'How can we get on a Carl's Jr. ad?'" Puzder said. "Kim Kardashian, her mother Kris called me, and said, 'Can we get Kim in an ad?'"
Puzder, whom President Donald Trump would later nominate as labor secretary, said that starring in a Carl's Jr. ad was seen as a massive career boost for young models or actresses. Fast-food brands have greater reach than almost any other industry, with customers developing strong connections with and opinions about the brands.
The McDonald's arches are the most recognizable symbol in the world. Kris and Kim were gunning for the Kardashians to be the most recognizable family in the world. As their social media follower counts grew and Kardashian coverage ballooned, fast-food name drops on social media and in interviews continued - a symbiotic relationship where both Kardashians and fast-food giants benefited from the press.
Kanye West has his own fast-food obsession
Kevin Winter / Getty
It should come as little surprise that Kanye West, a man obsessed with how he brands himself, had his own appreciation of fast food before ever meeting his future wife.
Kanye has songs that name-check chains - "Says she want diamonds, I took her to Ruby Tuesdays, If we up in Fridays, I still have it my way." Others talk about working in restaurants - "This week he moppin' floors, next week it's the fries." In 2008, West bought the rights to open 10 Fatburger locations in Chicago.
His 2014 marriage into the Kardashian family brought a new level of scrutiny, even as he attempted to avoid appearances in "Keeping Up With the Kardashians." Kanye reportedly bought Kim the rights to open 10 Burger King franchises located throughout Europe as a wedding present, though no locations were ultimately opened in the Kardashian West name.
The name drops continued. "Beggars can't be chooser, b----, this ain't Chipotle," Kanye rapped in 2016. He penned a poem in 2016 called "The McDonald's Man" in a magazine written to accompany Frank Ocean's sophomore album,"Blonde."
Kanye portrays fast food as both a symbol and as sustenance. In 2016, the rapper tweeted: "McDonalds is my favorite brand." In 2018, he tweeted: "McDonald's is my favorite restaurant."
The division between high-brow and low-brow is dead
Around the time they were getting together, Kimye was a brand comparable to many fast-food giants. Many people described "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" as a "guilty pleasure." Kanye was still recovering from becoming public enemy No. 1 after the Taylor Swift incident. Both Kanye and Kim were wildly popular, even if they weren't always respected.
But, Kim and Kanye didn't just want the fast-food kind of fame, the fame of being something most people like, but feel ashamed about liking. They wanted fine-dining, New York Times' Food section-reviewed, high-brow approval. They wanted to be Vogue cover stars - and, despite plenty of backlash, they got it.
Pink Polo Kanye and trashy-chic Kim needed to disappear. So, they put out fashion lines, attended the Met Gala, and schmoozed with tech executives. Anna Wintour reportedly signed off on their decision to name their first born North West. Kim is going to be a lawyer! Both of them have met with the president!
Like celebrities desperate to appear relateable by scarfing down In-N-Out after the Oscars, Kim and Kanye continue to keep their public love of fast food alive.
Kim's fast-food consumption feels both deeply performative and - because of her decade-long dedication to the game - surprisingly genuine. Chains like McDonald's and In-N-Out somewhat frequently turn up in Kim's interviews, Instagram posts, and Snapchat. Paparazzi shots of her leaving McDonald's with a $1 ice cream cone are viewed by millions, providing Kim with a press cycle about how low-key and relatable she is and the fast-food chain with significant free advertising.
Kim Kardashian's approval is worth millions of dollars
Invision/Charles Sykes via Associated Press
It's clear the chains appreciate the love Kim gives. Back in 2016, McDonald's sent Kim a Givenchy wallet filled with gift cards to the fast-food chain. After all, Kim typically charges $300,000 to $500,000 for a single Instagram post.
"Because a significant portion of my business involves the licensing of my name, trademarks, and images, I work very hard to ensure that my brand means something to my fans and to the public, who view the use of my name as the stamp of approval by me," she said in a 2019 lawsuit.
Kim wouldn't be spotted with a brand if there wasn't something in it for her. Today, Kim's reputation is more precious than anything money can buy.
Again and again, Kim Kardashian gives fast food the stamp of approval. Fast food helped make her a household name. Now, it keeps her semi-relatable as she travels the world and racks in millions of dollars a year.
Why Kanye is drawn to Chick-fil-A
Kim's approach to fame has been to try to have it all, aiming to dominate the high-brow and the low-brow until there is no divide between the two. Kanye's has been darker.
The rapper has publicly discussed his mental health issues, and he faced backlash for his controversial statements and support for Trump.
In that way, it makes sense that Kanye's newest fast-food obsession would be Chick-fil-A. In an industry where most chains aim for widespread acceptance, Chick-fil-A remains polarizing. Its first location in the UK sparked massive backlash due to its anti-LGBTQ reputation. But, it is also incredibly beloved - teens and basically everyone else in America consider it their favorite chain.
In "Closed on Sunday," Kanye advises against the sins of modern fame, pushing a religious message. But, even at his most pious, Kanye doesn't only turn to God. He turns to a fast-food brand.
Chick-fil-A is a symbol for Kanye. If McDonald's was Old Kanye - a classic American brand - the New Kanye brand is more similar to how Kanye and other Chick-fil-A supporters interpret Chick-fil-A's identity: controversial but driven by conviction.
"Closed on Sunday, you my Chick-fil-A," Kanye raps. "You're my number one, with the lemonade. Raise our sons, train them in the faith. Through temptations, make sure they're wide awake."
Kim has been cashing in on fast food as a sponsored-content icon since before the rise of the influencer. Kanye, on the other hand, attempts to use brands to connect with people.
As Kanye continues to lead a life that's increasingly divergent from the average American, Chick-fil-A represents a common touchstone that everyone has a take on. We may not be making $150 million a year, living in $60 million mansions and hosting invitation-only spiritual gatherings.
But, the feeling of craving a chicken sandwich, then realizing it is Sunday and Chick-fil-A is closed - that is something people can still relate to.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Insider.
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