Dr Johnson, in a 1759 essay, wrote that “Promise, large promise, is the soul of an advertisement.” Nothing has changed. Except that the promises made are perhaps even more outrageous. If I were judging the BIG FIB awards (never heard of them? You wouldn’t have – I’ve just made them up) the top award would go to McDonald’s for the WE ALL HAVE McDONALD’S IN COMMON commercial that promises a little helping of fries will cure many of society’s ills. It’s not Johnsonian but positively Orwellian.
Old McDonald had a farm
In fairness to McDonald’s they have also been ploughing a more prosaic furrow for a while now, with commercials designed to convince us they put good stuff in their burgers and fries.
At least this approach has a few facts in it and does focus on the product, so it arguably has a smidgin of integrity (if you scrape off the lashings of sentimentality).
Ronald in retreat
But is building up your good honest food credentials with a garnish of environmental, provenance and organic brownie points enough? McDonald’s has been struggling for some time. Earlier this year they announced the departure of their chief executive just days after reporting their first fall in sales in 12 years.
I imagine the sales have been under pressure for quite a while. The company did OK in the recession, because their meals were cheap. But over the past few years they’ve been struggling against the general trend towards healthier lifestyles and increased competition from “fast casual” rivals such as Nandos, Chipotle and Frankie & Benny’s.
I don’t want to be the one to shoot the puppy, but…*
When the going gets tough in business what do you do? You have a meeting! And at that meeting someone would have said something along these lines. “Building up our credentials is all very well, but is it just a bit too, you know, worthy? I know we’ve got lots of cute kiddies in there, and happy clappy music too, but is that enough? We gotta sell some burgers! It just doesn’t have that wow factor for me, know what I’m saying?! I feel we’re missing a trick here. What we need is a BIG IDEA!” (How many times have I sat in meetings and had to listen to that BS from a jerk in a suit who has never had a wow idea in their entire number-crunching arse-licking life? But I digress…).
Burgers that make you best buddies
So the brief, (“excite me”), goes out to a bunch of agencies. And the winner comes back with this story about a single dad and single mum who get together. But stepdad fails to bond with stepson, despite repeated attempts…until he suggests dinner at McDonald’s. When you put it across like that it sounds a bit corny, but in the hands of a slick production company it is really quite moving – like I nearly heaved.
How would they have sold this sack of sweetener laden pap to the client? By telling them it is “gritty social realism” and “that our customer research insights indicate that these are the kind of issues your core customers are dealing with, the lives they are living, the challenges they are facing. This is a message people will really engage with, it has high empathy values…because we’re getting real!”
Sickening as it is, I can just about stomach this commercial. Fathers, step or otherwise, do bond with their kids over fast food. I’ve done it, but when my son reached the age of the teenager in this commercial the idea of a McDonalds would have been greeted with incredulity – anything less than a proper curry was too meagre a bribe for a few minutes of awkward conversation.
Let’s Go Large on social engineering
But from here McDonald’s moved on to bigger things. The “Parallel Lives” commercial, first aired in 2013, is much bolder in scope. Instead of promising to fix one family it promises to fix the entire “broken society” that David Cameron was banging on about back then.
We open on shots of high rise blocks and cut to bunch of hoodies. Sixty something Henry Cooper lookalike walks past and glances are exchanged. Kids listen to rap on their phones, he goes home and puts on a LP of trad jazz. Compare and contrast, OMG they are soooo different, that’s amaaaaziiing! Cut to kids experimenting with radical haircuts, followed by the geezer at barber’s getting “the usual”, geddit, this compare and contrast stuff is so cool, knowhatI’msayin’?
Cut to kids walking through estate, trousers sagging. Cut to geezer, with braces, so his trousers almost come up to his armpits. Man, that’s what I call insightful! They are, like, from different generations and you can see it in the way they wear their clothes. Fashion, it tells you so much…! They play X-box, he plays snooker… that’s another difference, and the way the film people put them together, I spotted it straight off, so it’s good, right?
But now the geezer and the kids are both going out at the same time, so uh oh, they’re going to meet. And there’s going to be this confrontation, because they’re, like, opposites, with nothing in common. How’s it going to end? There’s half a dozen of them in their gang, but I bet he’s hard, like ‘Enry, and probably knew the Krays, and Ronnie Biggs and that….
Cut to interior of McDonalds with kids and geezer in same frame. Pull focus and quick cutting juxtaposes young black kid and geezer, both shaking out their fries the same way! They have something in common. Their eyes meet and after a tense pause they exchange smiles. Cut to shot of McDonald’s exterior with super and voice over both giving same message: We all have McDonald’s in common.
Keep calm and have a happy meal
So the message is clear. Ageism, racism, the problems of a multicultural society, the grim reality of making do on a low income in a souless inner city estate, none of these issues is so massive it cannot be overcome by a Big Mac. The politicians seem unable to solve these issues. So thank goodness we have lovely brands like McDonald’s, with our best interests at heart, making sure we all live happily ever after!
*“To take an unpopular action” – as in “Criticise the TV commercials we all thought were so great when the agency took us out for lunch in Soho”
Picture credit: Jim O’Connor, in McDonald’s, Street, Somerset (any excuse to have a quick burger and fries!)