Commentary

Overarching Concerns About McDonald's

I wasn’t expecting this big, emotional, Super-Bowl-type spot promoting the Golden Arches to pop up during the Golden Globes. But there it was: the stirring, food-free, children’s chorus-sweetened 60-second “Signs.” 

Built on a fascinating accretion of actual marquee messages from American McD stores over the years and coast-to-coast, it’s underscored by the song “Carry On” by Fun, as sung by kids with lilting innocence in their voices. And it’s brilliantly designed and produced. (Leo Burnett is the agency.) The song and images move together and the combination really packs a punch.

Ironically, however, it’s a punch to our collectively Big Mac-filled guts that the fast-food giant might not have intended. Certainly, it’s much more corporate, political, and powerful than the rest of the new “I’m Lovin’ It!” campaign, which includes lots of animation and much fun-ner concepts.

I know it comes from a place of trying to hook viewers emotionally, trying to make people feel all warm and bond-y about the bedrocky place Mickey D’s has occupied in our lives.

Certainly, each sign is interesting on its own as a visual object and a document of American history. (And a tumblr account explains the background of each.)

But in putting this flood of images together in this sort of visual McBlizzard, referencing everything from the Iraq war to a baby's birth to 9/11 and the Boston terrorist attacks, the spot combines the hideously world-changing with the everyday and superficial in a way that’s hard to process in a mere 60 seconds (even if that is a lifetime on old-school TV.) To me, that makes the spot off-putting and gratuitous, more a piece of propaganda than a standard ad.
 
The corporate propaganda aspect did not go unnoticed.  Reaction to “Signs” lit up Twitter and social media immediately after running. (It was seen during sports programming before the Globes.)  It seemed to be equally revered and reviled,  but many of the more-caustic reactions had nothing to do with, say, foodie snobbishness. I have a friend, Neilan Tyree, a marketing expert, who has lived all over the country, is a life-long McDonald’s eater and confesses to enjoying a tasty, warm, and inexpensive McDonald’s meal to this day.

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And Tyree was practically apoplectic in his Facebook comments after it ran. I asked him why, and he said “here's why I freaked out: it's a total lie.” He says he grew up in the South, and never remembers seeing a message like that on a McDonald’s marquee, and that that they’re actually more fitting for churches. “I remember a message on a church on the way to my home in Alabama that read, ‘Jesus. This Bud's for you.’ That seemed funny, heartfelt and true. How dare McDonald’s co-opt something that their corporate monolith is the exact opposite of.”

Actually, five of the signs directly use the words “pray” or “God.” And whatever else the corporate monolith has genuinely provided for America, (cheap and filling food, a setting for kids’ birthday parties, a neutral spot for divorced parents to exchange the kids on weekends, etc.) suggesting actual worship -- or having a religious experience at the Golden Arches -- is a new one on me.
 
In using the signs as a metaphor for renewal, the spot reminded me of the by-now-iconic Reagan reelection commercial, “It’s Morning Again in America.” That showed pictures of people going to work and getting married (in a church) while a voiceover told us how much better off we were with Reagan as president.

The signs referencing "disasters" were actually more telling. It's here the company comes across more like a legacy operation and a vital part of  smokestack America than its newer, more organic competitors. The shot of the totally blown-out logo on the marquee, which says, “Open” underneath (and was photographed after 2004's Hurricane Jeanne in Vero Beach, Fla.), could easily be hanging in a museum, to symbolize the death of fast food, or the dearth of jobs in the rust belt.

The most ironic sign, in the way of “these-people-have-been-inside-the-corporate-bubble-too-long,” is “Keep jobs in Toledo.”
Because the painful truth is that McDonald’s, with its low-paying jobs, is part of a real issue facing the nation. Yes, a value meal still has great value in this economy. But more importantly, McD’s team members are rarely adolescents working after school to pay for fancy sneakers. They are people who work as many hours as they can but still can’t support their families without food stamps or other handouts.

So the best advertising McDonald’s could do right now, and the only serious corporate messaging that would resonate as authentic and inspirational, would be to do something of actual substance: raise the hourly wage for its workers.

The problem with this spot is that McDonald’s is using a very powerful pitch to make us feel warmer about ribless ribs. It's looking for some kind of old-school reverence for its longevity, but the company needs to show leadership in all things, including worker pay, to be relevant.

“We are who we are” is the main refrain from the song. Ironically, this spot shows just that.
21 comments about "Overarching Concerns About McDonald's".
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  1. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, January 16, 2015 at 5:03 p.m.

    Given my own personal experience and perspective, my reaction when seeing the spot in the context of the football game was that it was insincere. I guess another term would be, "bullshit."

  2. Jonathan McEwan from MediaPost, January 16, 2015 at 5:10 p.m.

    Show me a truly sincere ad, and I'll show you a sucker. In the mirror. Please. It's just an ad. And a pretty good one at that. For one thing, I saw all the ads that played during the Globes and the only one I actually remember is the one you're still talking about today.

  3. Bruce Dundore from Lazaroff/Dundore, January 16, 2015 at 5:17 p.m.

    I thought this spot enormously well done and spot on as far as utilizing an aspect of the brand we are all familiar with. Mac between a french fry and a hardened artery place, but you don't give up the ghost in trying to spur some fond memories of the brand, and how it still has some relevance to our lives today. No one is going to order a Happy Meal from this, but there is no reason they can't make people feel happy. Now- go and get yourself some better ingredients in your food, up the price on a soda, send those profits into education programs, and pay people a living wage. That would really be worth advertising.

  4. Craig Mcdaniel from Sweepstakes Today LLC, January 16, 2015 at 5:19 p.m.

    McDonald's has been with no question, the leader in political correct advertisement over the past 10 years. I think the animated and the McDonald's billboard sign ads is a major break from the past. Improvement? I think so.

  5. Andrew Hartnett from Flite.com, January 16, 2015 at 5:35 p.m.

    There is no such thing as food snobbishness when it come to what McD's has wrought.....obesity, cancer, diabetes, blood disorders. They could lead but they don't. And perpetuate with lies and mythology. As Steve Jobs would say, "are you really going to eat that $&@! "

  6. Elaine Underwood from Prevalent Comm, January 16, 2015 at 5:38 p.m.

    I do recall seeing signs at some McDonald's in Texas supporting local football teams and the like, so it's not totally out of sync to me that these signs are legit. You are right, Barbara, to bring up the myth of the employee as high-school student saving up for new Nike's. McDonald's could really connect with customers through being a great employer who goes above minimum wage and hires its adult workers for 40-hour weeks rather than staying under the healthcare employer mandate of 30 hours. That would be something to tout.

  7. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, January 16, 2015 at 6:05 p.m.

    A sign on the arch supporting a local team....well OK. But all of this bru ha ha about themselves is like selfishies on steroids. Just better not to ingest clown junk; the big fat joke's on you.

  8. Becky Ebenkamp from Idsville, January 16, 2015 at 6:41 p.m.

    Yeah, personalized messages on the same signs where McD's likes to brag about its ubiquity, "Over XX Billion Served." I found the ad interesting but not the best fit for the brand. Aside from mom & pops, I really only see these message boards on Shakey's Pizza signs in L.A. (eg., "Happy Birthday, Caitlin!") Oh, and I liked the animated spot better when it was Oreo's "Wonderfilled" anthem: Same art, same message. +1 on the wages issue.

  9. valery wright from SGVWT LLC, January 16, 2015 at 6:52 p.m.

    Over the past 20 years, as I (deliberately) worked 3-6-12 month projects (as a software engineer), I saw lots of those types of signs. There is a great deal of God-fearing Christians around this country, maybe not on the 'coasts' but certainly in middle america and the South. As to should McD's pay a livable wage, they pay the wage they SHOULD pay for NO SKILLED LABOR. You want to make the kind of money I make? (6 figures), then do what I DID. I did NOT get a college degree, but I DID spend every weekend, and many week nights at the LIBRARY learning stuff to make me WORTH six figures. It was hard, and I gave up a LOT (partying, watching tv, eating out) in order to LEARN how to PROGRAM. AND I DID IT. If I can do it, go from no skills to highly in demand big buck earner, ANYONE CAN. McD's not for a lifelong career op, unless one moves into management, and in order to do THAT, you damn well better know how to do statistical analysis, projections, etc. etc. etc. Saying 'would you like fries with that' even if you can say that in five languages, is MEANINGLESS. (BTW, I haven't eaten anything at McDs in about 20 years, because I treat my body way better than that!)

  10. Ronald Lunde from The Lunde co, January 16, 2015 at 7:24 p.m.

    If McDonald's franchise operators, remember McDonald's does not own the stores independent franchise operators do, raised the wages to $15.00 per hour and subsequently had to raise food prices 30 to 60% to maintain profitability, would you feel better about eating at McDonald's? Would you buy more products more often?

    If the minimum wage went to $15.00 would, in a couple of years time, the wage earner's buying power be the same as it was at the old minimum wage because of inflationary pressures?

    If a minimum wage raise would give a true lift to the economy and have no adverse economic effects, why not go for for $30.00, or $50.00. In fairness, there is no clear cut consensus among economists as to the impact of wages as a result of such a move, positive or negative at this time. They simply do not know.

    What we do know is that there are 'robots' in beta tests around the world that can handle most of the functions of food preparation at a 1 time cost of about $10,000 per unit. That would provide ample room for a major pay increase to the workers not displaced. But that is probably 5 years out. Think about the possibility and probability as a tremendous amount of media buys are now done on RTB platforms which has had a major impact on Agency media buying staffing. Lot's of middle class jobs just went away. Might happen in fast food too.

    What we do know, today, is that about 16% of the male prime age workforce is no longer engaged in full or part time work, according to the Census Bureau as reported in the NY Times. How do we solve that problem? What if it grows to 20 or 25% on the basis of AI or other forms of automation?

    Business is pretty much a simple mathematical equation. Based on today's environment, you probably would not invest your personal 401 retirement portfolio in a McDonald's or any other franchise operation.

    Soooo ... would spending the national ad budget on salaries instead be the way to go? If the McD's followed your blog's line of thinking, it would be better to spend the money on relevant things like raising store operational wages, etc. than, let's say, advertising. Would non-revenue linked programs like advertising then be irrelevant. So we have two solution possibilities, raise prices carries some risk of customer and revenue loss or cut non ROI-evident expenses like national ad campaigns and perhaps reconfigure the compensation models so that MBA's and operational employees are closer to a compensation parity. I suspect cutting the costs will win.

    You posit a most interesting hypothesis in your blog.

  11. Ronald Lunde from The Lunde co, January 16, 2015 at 8:55 p.m.

    Ooops ... lest we forget one tiny detail. The minimum wage is set at a Federal level by the Congress and the President. Then all business entities are on a level playing field and share equally in the economic outcomes and risks. This is really not a McDonald's or Wal Mart issue by itself ... so why waste time on the argument. Call your congressional representative!

    If a 'living national wage' is really the objective ... let's go for $30.00 an hour minimum with a wage freeze on all other salaries and compensation packages that are above that number. Also make all jobs hourly, 40 hours maximum, with no overtime or management exempt provisions and no salary or total compensation package could exceed 10 times the minimum wage with no compensation package to be able to exceed the 40 hour limit. Ban any compensation over the 40 hour limit and make it a misdemeanor offense to exceed 40 hours of work. This would apply to all private sector, government including the executive, judicial and congressional branches, academic, medical, lawyers, independent business enterprises, etc. All stock options for startups should be capped at 2 x's the employees annual salary with any incremental valuation turned over to the government and used for free college educations for all if the universities agree to open enrollment platforms, accept any student that applies for undergraduate or graduate degrees, and guarantees a 90% graduation rate. All stock appreciation could be taxed at 90% over the original purchase price and the revenue earned could fund education or health care programs. Perhaps then you will either get something like a parity compensation scale ... or more AI and robots.

    If 'better for you food' is the objective as some suggest, either ban all non approved menu items using the school lunch program menu as a national standard or pass a 300% 'glutton' tax on any non-compliant food. Also tax any manufacturer of non approved foods a dollar amount equal to the selling price of the product to be used for national health care subsidies. Or ... perhaps as easier solution, if you don't think the McDonald's menu is appropriate ... simply don't eat there.

    What the heck, if 70% of the U.S. age appropriate population would not meet minimum requirements based on education, health or personality disorders, for entry into the military ... why worry about this stuff? In a few years there probably won't be anybody around that would have the capacity to read this blog anyway.

  12. Ruth Thomas from Second helping, January 16, 2015 at 11:30 p.m.

    I had the same swing of emotions as you...it got me, I actually did get weepy. The song, the voices, each sign with sad reminders, poignant, so touching...then before I could grab my Kleenex, I felt had and manipulated. I dabbed my wet lashes and berated myself for being such an easily manipulated sucker.this is to promote the "in a nutshell problem with Ameica" overly salty, overly greasy, pink slime sludge, being sold in super sized portions that could feed an entire village...preying on the weak, making America obese with their carefully engineered food that makes it almost impossible to stop eating, and cooked and sold by people so desperate to have a job, they will work for slave wages...I got over the feel good message pretty quickly....great job, Leo Burnett, you almost sold me

  13. Eric Gutierrez from Hey,, January 17, 2015 at 12:14 a.m.

    It’s easy to hate on McDs. As a former CD for McDs, my experience and interactions, both in Oakbrook at the corporate level and with local franchisees, I didn’t see an evil empire. I saw a confederacy of small business owners – bootstrap-y people, many minorities, who made good. (I hope I don’t have to turn in my liberal card for this opinion, but I don’t think you can write off the house that Ray built. It’s a house with a heart. that may just turn itself around.) As for the ad…my friends who saw it thought that the marquee signs were probably faked. That’s a brand problem and a trust problem that won’t be easy to solve.

  14. chuck husak from august, lang & husak, January 17, 2015 at 9:55 a.m.

    I'm with you, yet I felt as I saw the spot that McDonald's was doing an OK job here melting itself into our culture even more than they already have, aligning with America's undaunted, uplifted, spirit of yak yak you know where I'm going.

    But they fucked up by telling me at the end of the spot "where I could go to learn the stories behind each sign." From kinda admiring McDonald's for doing a :60 anthem spot with no french fries that might have been corporate smug but at least was gentle -- I was savagely reminded that McDonald's wasn't settling for a feel-good Golden Arches moment. Instead, they were taking me to the starting line of a multi-channel promotional caper, undoubtedly wired for social media and mobile access.

    I cry foul. I deserve a break today, and instead I get MORE WAYS TO ENGAGE THE BRAND.

    They should have stopped when they were ahead.

  15. Thomas Siebert from BENEVOLENT PROPAGANDA, January 17, 2015 at 11:49 a.m.

    RUTH THOMAS has already made my comment (Ruth Thomas Siebert?)....I knew I was being manipulated on a brilliant, epic scale and I was helpless to resist even as I knew how diabolical the commercial's core remained. I actually got teary. But it didn't influence me in the end: McDonald's still sells profoundly unhealthy food and pays their people starvation wages and if my kids are really really really in the mood for fast food on the West Coast, the only place we'll go is In 'n' Out Burger.

  16. Tom Baer from TBI, January 17, 2015 at 1:32 p.m.

    Everyone loves to be a critic of big targets. Put yourself in their shoes. The spot is extremely well done and does exactly what it should. McDonald's is an American icon and they are playing on the emotional roller coaster that is life in America. No different than Budweiser or Coca-Cola. You want them to run ads that say "we pay less, come eat at McDonald's"? Would Walmart run ads that say "we pay less come shop at Walmart and help us put local retailers out of business at the same time"? Get off your high horse -- I applaud a well done campaign.

  17. Melanie Howard from self employed, January 17, 2015 at 5:57 p.m.

    The only sign I ever remember seeing at McDonald's referenced how many billion hamburgers they'd sold. Somehow those billions of burgers and America's investment in them should translate into a living wage for McDonald's employees.

  18. Bill Sweeney from Freelance, January 17, 2015 at 8:18 p.m.

    Thanks for this.
    The only positive in these words from our sponsor was the realization that the then painfully recent events of France would not be part of it. Still cashing in, and that's the only way to put it, on the mirror like Boston episode was enough. Yes, it was just another natural disaster, a hurricane, flood or fire Ronald McDonald would help us survive. And if one was waiting for some grand gesture, a token donation or humane policy change as a payoff, there would no Happy Meal tonight. Just a sickly taste in mouth that follows all journeys through the arches.

  19. Jim English from The Met Museum, January 18, 2015 at 9:45 a.m.

    Thanks Barbara. While totally insincere, I have to admit I enjoyed the ad, and it was well done. And McDonald's and Leo Burnett had enough decency to remember 9/11 without trying to cash in on it. I'm sure you recall the clueless folks at Budweiser running their Clydesdales up to Ground Zero in an almost unimaginable assault on decency.

  20. Ronald Lunde from The Lunde co, January 19, 2015 at 10:16 a.m.

    Brand Power: Note the comments of Paul Bloom of Yale, author of What We Like And Why,

    While reading his comments, remember that McD was the first to offer Braille menus for the sight impaired; first to offer calorie information, first to add 'healthy items' on their menu. McD has done a lot of good things for which the dialogue should give credit.

    Bloom's point is that 'brands' are 'important' to humans. So Burnett, as usual, probably got it right for the job that had to be done at this moment.

    Bloom's NPR - Ted Talk Comments ... worth a read!

    BLOOM: Even the most seemingly simple pleasures are affected by our beliefs about hidden essences. So take food - how it tastes to you will depend critically on what you think you're eating. So one demonstration of this was done with young children. How do you make children, not just be more likely to eat carrots and drink milk, but to get more pleasure from eating carrots and drinking milk - to think they taste better? It's simple. You tell them they're from McDonald's.

    Perhaps the school lunch program would not be in so much trouble gaining acceptance if the government types had consulted Dr. Bloom.

  21. Brian Kelly from brian brands, January 20, 2015 at 2:40 p.m.

    How many iconic ads would have been rightly savaged if social media existed back in the day?
    Marlboro Man, Green Giant, Keebler Elves, Sears? All the spots Johnny Carson satirized would have driven views just like John Oliver. Even the Dove campaign has its haters.
    Anthemic, omnibus, corporate internal ads don't work off the reservation anymore.
    The mob has arrived.

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