Stay Tuned/The McDonalds Personality Cult

From Eccentric Flower


stay tuned

The McDonald's Personality Cult
12 October 1997

The truth, I suspect, is that most people don't hate McDonald's as much as they say they do.

Oh, sure, McDonald's is an easy target. It's chic to bad-mouth McDonald's. And certainly they're not the powerhouse they once were. They're having to cope with flatline sales, health-conscious consumers, increasing competition from odd segments of the marketplace, and a franchise system that is becoming something of a millstone around their neck.

But guess what? McDonald's is nowhere near down for the count. And, more to the point of today's screed, they have learned how to advertise themselves in a seductive and insidious way - a sneaky method they are learning to use better than just about anyone else, with the possible exception of Coca-Cola.

They have learned to play on our overdeveloped, bloated, compulsive sense of nostalgia. We have only ourselves to blame.

We are the most backward-looking nation in the world. Amid a steady pattern of rising technical and social progress since the turn of the century, we have never once managed to shake the impression that the grass is greener in the rear-view mirror, the impulse to think of a decade before ours as being better by far. The people who are currently entering middle age believe that the Sixties (which usually means the decade 1965-1975, despite its name) were the peak. Their parents long for the post-war decade (1945-1955). Using the twenty year gap as a yardstick, does that mean I'll end up looking backward longingly at 1985-1995? I hope not. That decade brought me most of the disasters which accompany the process of learning to be an adult - broken relationships, bad jobs, failed college attempts, and the rest of that lot. Nonetheless it is true that things look better the further you get from them.

We also have the tendency to look for stability in these times of rapid change. Unfortunately, we generally do this the wrong way - by according phenomena "instant tradition" status. We want things to be long-standing institutions. It gives us something we can place faith in. And so we end up placing faith in the wrong things. As non-religious as I am, I would rather have you place your faith in the Catholic church than have you place your faith in McDonald's. The pope presumably acts from deeper motivations than wanting to get his hands on your money.

McDonald's really began to be a nationwide presence around 1960. Before that, they were growing rapidly, but were still unknown in large portions of the country. In the decade 1965-1975, McDonald's became ubiquitous - reaching the sort of saturation that led to McDonald's denying franchises in some cities because their restarurants were already too close together, and any more would steal business from each other. That decade is significant; it has already been mentioned once in this article. In essence the boomers were coming of age at the same time McDonald's was, and the period that many of them now look back upon, through their rose-colored glasses, has McDonald's as an integral element.

This means that McDonald's doesn't have to sell the virtues of its products anymore. In fact, no one cares. The older purchasers already have a mental association - McDonald's as comfort food, McDonald's as familiar, trusted face. And they, in turn, are busy indoctrinating their children into the McDonald's cult.

The latest ads for McDonald's are themed "Did someone say McDonald's?" They are pitched primarily to working-class adults. The theme in several of them is that a lone person is contemplating going to McDonald's, and the idea catches first another person, then many people, then everyone in the office, bus, whatever. Eventually the ad ends with a stampede of people into a McDonalds, the bus changing its route, and so forth. These are ads promoting cultish behavior. They're hilarious ads, but when you get past the disarming humor, isn't it a little scary to see all these people having a Pavlovian I-need-McDonald's reaction just because one person mentions the restaurant?

Another of these ads involves a tall man on a business trip. He is first squeezed into a narrow airplane seat, then a tiny foreign car, then a hotel room the size of a closet. Through the hotel window he sees a McDonald's. (The restaurant sign is the only thing visible which is not in near-monochrome - just to rub the idea in.) Next he is in the restaurant. "Super-size me," he says. "Certainly, sir, what would you like?" says the perky cashier. "I don't care," he replies. "Just super-size me."

Again, a funny commercial, but beneath it is the uncomfortable fact that when Americans travel, instead of seeking out the local restaurants, they frequently go to a McDonald's, for reasons of familiarity more than anything else. This commercial exploits an aspect of our behavior which really has very little to do with the product itself. In fact, a specific food item is never mentioned!

It's been a while, so I should probably restate my position toward McDonald's.

I don't hate them, but I don't eat their food either.

I like one item at McDonald's: the sausage biscuit. (And if you put egg on it, I'll kill you, you despoiler of food.) The sausage biscuit is a venerable item of Southern food, and whether you believe it or not, McDonald's makes some of the best commercial biscuits around. Especially in New England - these Northerners have no idea how to make a proper biscuit, but McDonald's quality control is always reliable.

In fact, what I admire most about McDonald's is their consistency. People don't fully appreciate how much work it is getting the Big Macs in New Haven to taste the same as the ones in San Jose, especially in a franchise system, where each restaurant is run by an independent entity who may have his own ideas on how things are to be done. It's very impressive.

But this raises the obvious question: with a mechanism like that in place, with the purchasing power to radically change the way food is grown and shipped in this country (McDonald's completely reshaped the potato industry in under ten years, just by doing what it does), with all this clout ... why is the food so mediocre?

I suspect the answer is that old least common denominator thing again. And I understand that. But since I do not like bland food, I prefer to eat somewhere else. Note that I'm not putting on health airs here - I eat a lot of fast food, but I want it to have taste. The only non-breakfast item on the McDonalds menu that had flavor, the fish sandwich, got it from a generous dollop of tartar sauce, and ever since they changed the proportions (proving that too much of each ingredient is not necessarily better), it's been ruined.

This is the food of which a cult is made? Of course. The best cults can't be too radical - they have to provide something which is bland enough to not alienate too many of their potential followers. If McDonald's served McSushi, the food would probably be more interesting, but would they be able to attract the same number of customers? Of course not. Yet sushi joints are as ubiquitous in Japan as golden arches are here.

Of course, the proof of any cult is in the paraphenalia - the trappings and kitscherie that the devout choose to equip themselves with as proof of their faith. McDonald's has done its part to provide these over the years (vintage Happy Meal toys in good condition are now worth an embarrassing amount of money), but the real vindication comes when a third party begins providing holy objects separately from the Mother Church.

For example, the nice people at Ashton-Drake, whose McMemories line is now a separate business unit, albeit one they're a little ashamed of (the McMemories materials no longer bear the Ashton-Drake name anywhere). Of course, they have the approval of the Mother Church - this is the corporate world, not the religious one, and trademark infringement is a mortal sin.

I have not provided pictures of any of the items from their latest catalog here; this column is already three days overdue, and besides, the devoted archaeologist will find some scans in the Sunday Papers stacks. But I can tell you that one of their latest offerings is a perfectly atrocious set of hand-blown glass McDonald's Christmas ornaments. Their highly reflective, hand-painted and hand-silvered surfaces stare out at me. The clown looks especially sinister in this configuration. The two ornaments (the clown and some French fries) together will set you back forty bucks.

We also have some small models of the three styles of McDonald's restaurants through the ages (they are illuminated from within by a hidden light bulb); some more Christmas ornaments, shaped like anthropomorphic Chicken McNuggets; a crystal and 22K gold sculpture of a McDonald's; a die-cast model of an eighteen-wheeler with a McDonald's ad on the side; innumerable dolls, many of which I have discussed in the past; animation cels; ugly art; a model sheet showing the evolution of the damned clown; several banks shaped like various things; and a necklace in sterling silver and 22K gold, whose pendant is shaped like a package of French fries. Super-sized, one assumes.

The prices in this catalog are judiciously placed - high enough that people think they're not buying junk, but low enough to not be out of the reach of the target audience. Most items are between forty and sixty dollars. These people know their audience.

Nor are they an isolated case - I have seen companies offer promotional dolls of the clown, and other miscellany, at various times in the last year. McMemories may be the biggest offender, but they're not alone. And never discount the kitsch department of the Mother Church itself. A substantial number of Happy Meals are bought by adults - for themselves. Some are probably buying it because of the smaller price, or the smaller serving size, or because it's easier to order an extra of whatever the kids are having ... but most are buying it to get the toy. (At Burger King, where it's slightly easier to get the toy alone, they routinely sell a substantial amount of their toy promotions this way.)

I'm not suggesting that you have the poor taste to put McDonald's ornaments on your Christmas tree. But what about a bank shaped like a McDonald's truck? Very demure item, that. Would you buy one of these items as a joke, to show your friends and have a good laugh about? Sorry - that counts. They get your money despite your motivations.

The brilliant marketers at McDonald's are counting on your sense of nostalgia to sell product. But you are largely being nostalgic for something that isn't there. McDonald's has never been your friend. They aren't today, they weren't yesterday, and they won't be tomorrow. They don't know you from Adam, and they don't care about your welfare - they just want to sell you product.

That's not an indictment of McDonald's - it is no more and no less than I expect. Why should they care? I'd be surprised if they did. Their crime (if that's the word I want) is in trying to convince you that they do care, that they are your second family.

Your crime occurs if you happen to believe them.


The best book I have yet seen on McDonald's is Behind the Arches by John Love. It is a company-endorsed book, but it's not a whitewash by any means, and it is fascinating reading. It will also give you a grudging respect for these people.

[February 2007:] In intervening years, the McDonald's tides have risen and fallen, but very little has changed. "Super-size me" has certainly lost some of its luster since Morgan Spurlock got to it, but McDonald's appears to be poised to weather all storms. In fact, I'd say that somewhere around the turn of the millennium they realized they could no longer ride on the nostalgia sales mentioned above, and began a serious attempt to sell the young'uns while simultaneously giving up on their parents. McDonald's advertising in the last five or six years has skewed younger than it ever has before in my memory.

As noted elsewhere, the McMemories line is now apparently defunct. Thank heavens.

and now back to our program

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