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.
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
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.