McDonald’s and the Ambivalent Society: come as you are but don’t necessarily come out to your family
There's a French McDonald's ad circulating the blogosphere, which seems to be creating a stir. The ad features a young man having lunch with his father at McDonald's. While his dad orders, he sits in a booth and looks down onto a class photo. Five seconds into the clip we hear the young man's cell phone, and at eight seconds, he's telling the caller with unambiguous affection that he was just "thinking about you too." Then a hasty goodbye as his father returns, and if we hadn't already guessed it, the ensuing conversation leaves little doubt that the young man is hiding his relationship with a classmate from his father. “Too bad your class is all boys,” the father tells his son, and we know at last his son is gay and in the closet. This is the subtext of the chat, which is ostensibly about love lost, namely the father’s memories of himself as a ladies’ man.
I suspect the moment between the father and his son is familiar to many men, like "watching a memory-in-process" . As I said, the conversation, the commercial, is about love lost, but put in less charitable terms, is also about love that that cannot exist openly for one man juxtaposed against the nostalgia of heterosexual conquests of another. It’s true that the ad recounts for many a familiar and sacred moment, but in the remaining seconds the familiarity is interrupted as the audience is reminded that heterosexuality isn't nearly as certain as the setting of the sun. The audience must reconcile their own affection for the loving father character and the son who feels unable to tell him he isn’t interested in being a ladies’ man. It is, then, nostalgia with a twist.
A song plays in the background. "I'm going down my road" comes the final lyric, and a closing tagline embraces the viewer to "come as you are." The ad isn't about sex; it's about sexuality, but given the tendency to see sex when talking about gays and lesbians, it is worth mentioning that the message to "come as you are" is an English translation tacked beneath the original French, "venez comme vous êtes," so we can assume the rather vulgar, double entendre was not intended. This isn’t to say that McDonald's is above sexually suggestive advertising. The folks at Queerty emphatically made this point when they posted a shot of a McDonald's billboard pitching to passersby an "Ogre-load" of creamy white McFlurry.
While I respectfully disagree with Queerty that McDonald's is necessarily "going after the gays" in their sexually provocative Shrek ad (ejaculation figures into heterosexual fantasies as well), the larger point that Queerty has fingered is that multi-million dollar ads are not designed in haste, and we can rest assured that every square inch of that billboard, just as every millisecond of the French television spot, has been endlessly scrutinized and discussed by many people working across many levels. There is no question in my mind as to whether McDonald's is aware of the meanings, articulations and associations its ads both reflect and produce. While they may not discuss it in the terms given in this post, I would argue that McDonald’s and the marketing firms that work with McDonald’s understand their role in the production of ideology.
So I view this recent hubbub about the ad as an extension of what McDonald’s execs and their team of underlings have already been doing. Blog entries like this one are attempting to deconstruct or reverse engineer, if you like, the cultural logic which accounts for why this ad went viral, receiving more than 600,000 views after the first week of its May release on YouTube and nearly 2 million views by the end of June. Why, in other words, was it important enough for Bill O’Reilly to subject it to his so-called no-spin zone? (here). Miriam at Feministing, suggested the question in its most succinct terms when she wrote, “I can't decide if this is progressive..or smugly portraying a kid who has to be closeted with his father.” What follows is my answer to this question.
First, as Miriam seems to allude to, there is a fundamental tension between an explicit message of openness and acceptance, or that you "come as you are," and an implicit one about the calculated wisdom of remaining in the closet. In fact, I would argue that the very success of the ad depends on this tension, because we are able to appreciate the chain's openness especially when reminded how truly difficult it still is for a son to be openly gay. The tension, then, is ultimately the means by which we are enticed to associate good feelings with McDonald’s hamburgers.
In an interview with the independent LGBT news website, Yagg.com, the brand director at McDonald’s France, Nathalie Legarlantezecs, boasted that “We wanted to take a look at how French society is today” and “There's obviously no problem with homosexuality in France today." While it feels appropriate here to point out that gays and lesbians are still unable to legally marry in France, one need not look beyond what is given in the commercial to evaluate Legarlantezecs’ remarks. Strictly speaking, the spot is not depicting broad acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships in France. Judged on its own terms, the commercial is not even promoting such an acceptance, which is a point most bloggers seem to have missed. On the contrary, French society is depicted as deeply ambivalent about gay relationships, and what the commercial promotes is the fantasy that McDonald's is an oasis of liberal acceptance in a world that is often very nervous about such relationships—perhaps especially when they involve youth.
So at the risk of stating the obvious, the McDonald's ad is a self-conscious positioning of a brand within a taken-for-granted and much broader system of ideas about the appropriateness of gay and lesbian relationships, what such relationships represent, and to what extent they are permissible. McDonald’s depends on this ideology or “common sense” about sexuality in order to successfully tug at our heartstrings and position its brand. And they do this task of positioning well. There is nothing outlandish about the spot because on some level it makes perfect sense to us that the young man must not confess to his father that he is in love with another man. We get it. We understand all too well that he will soon abandon the oasis and return to the ambivalent society, and we understand there are often consequences for such confessions. The young man is silent because his society is ambivalent, and this is such a basic truth, it need not be explained to us. In fact, exposition would only be an awkward distraction. In French society, as in the US, prolonging the secrecy might still be the safest choice. All of this is to say that the spot’s verisimilitude and nuance, lauded by so many commentators, is a rather tragic indictment of our prejudice.
So at this juncture, my criticism is not (yet) aimed at McDonald’s, but the system of ideas afloat today that have allowed this thirty-second spot to resonate with so many people. I hate that I live in a time and place where this ad works for McDonald’s. I despise the fact that McDonald’s is able to position it’s brand as an oasis, and amidst all the controversy stirred up about this ad, no one questions for a moment whether McDonald’s has invented a petulant society, which is hostile to gays and lesbians. That part of the spot feels so true to so many as to be unremarkable.
The marketing genius behind the ad then can be said to be fluently trading in the system of ideas that most of us already use to make sense of the world, but I think it is fruitful to press this metaphor of trading further and add that while McDonald’s may be adept in working this system of ideas, it does not trade like the rest of us. Cultural theorist, Stuart Hall, makes just this point (here) that “people who work in the media are producing, reproducing and transforming the field of ideological representation itself. They stand in a different relationship to ideology in general from others...” (p. 104; italics added) . How so? To put it bluntly, such people stand in an influential position to articulate or re-fix meaning. Their tools are different than those of regular folk and they generally have a larger audience.
The ad, then, in its capacity to produce, reproduce, and transform a system of ideas which work to render the exclusion of gays and lesbians as unremarkable, is where one must ultimately look to answer Miriam’s question. If as I’m arguing that a progressive ad is one which contests the reproduction of social relations and the ideology that undergirds them, then is this ad really all that progressive? I don’t think so. Despite being encouraged to come as we are, McDonald’s dared not depict itself as a truly liberatory space. At best, it is a temporary shelter, masquerading as a liberatory space. A more accurate tagline, albeit less catchy, would read, “come as you are, but don’t necessarily come out to your family.” The ad is not progressive because there is no cultural innovation here. We aren’t shown by example how a young gay man might find a way to speak honestly about his new love, which is very likely the most consuming topic on his mind. There are no new articulations here, no innovative connections drawn to the relationship between gay men and their often loving fathers. Instead, there is a story that unfolds in a subtle way, but is ultimately revealed as utterly predictable.
As I remarked above, rearticulating and fixing new meanings are choices and do not simply happen by accident. Nowhere is this more apparent than when reading a recent reflection about the ad by its creative director. He remarks that "Among the ideas [pitched], I immediately loved this one. Originally we were going to have him come out to his father, but we thought the teen telling his father he's gay, in front of a burger and fries, that would have been ... unsubtle." Whether the ad was to be progressive may have hinged on that very decision, and I think it is important to interrogate why remaining in the closet, or in the creative director’s terms remaining “subtle,” consistently feels like the right choice.
 Emerson, Jim. 2010. Jim Emerson's Scanners: Blog. "Once I had a Secret Love... (Royale with Cheese)" Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved June 17, 2010. (http://blogs.suntimes.com/scanners/2010/06/once_i_had_a_secret_love.html).
 Hall, Stuart. 1985. "Signification, Representation, Ideology: Althusser and the Post-Structuralist Debates." Critical Studies in Mass Communication. 2:91-114.