More than a tasty burger... the real human meaning of McDonald's
I was rarely allowed to eat at McDonald's as a kid. Despite one memory of being allowed to play in the ball pit at a friend’s birthday, the golden arches were reserved for times when it was the only food option around. As a teenager, the films ‘Supersize me’ and ‘Fast Food Nation’ painted an ugly picture of the chain for its unhealthy options and contribution to obesity around the world. But as a researcher of brands, I’ve gained a more nuanced understanding of the human and cultural impact of the golden arches.
After listening to an interview with Marcia Chatelain on her book ‘Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America’, I was surprised by the impact McDonald's has had on black communities in the US. Her book outlines the history of the two, and it’s a fascinating case study in corporate values, the impact of creative research on advertising, and how brands can be meaningful to consumers.
The interview tells the story of how ‘White Flight’ of the 1960s saw many white Americans move out of cities and into the suburbs as a result of the civil unrest that grew from movements to create racial equality. As they fled, many black franchise owners came to fill the void, made more possible as McDonald's capitalized on federal programs designed to support black business ownership. Where Jim Crow laws were still in place in the South, McDonald's' became some of the first desegregated and safe spaces to eat, drink, and hang out. Black-owned McDonald's franchises went on to outperform their white counterparts, urging the brand to concentrate on building trust with black diners.
Much market research went into McDonald's bolstering its position as a company aligned with the interests of black Americans. TV ads, although outdated and cringy by today’s standards, aimed at portraying the company values of ‘serve, inclusion, integrity, community, and family’ by way of cheesy narratives about flipping burgers all the way up the corporate ladder. At the same time, McDonald's created economic opportunities by hiring black creatives and ad makers to carry out their campaigns. They also openly advocated to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a federal holiday at a time when perspectives on him were still polarized in the US.
Cut to 2020, and while they published several ads in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, McDonald's still faces criticism today for ‘woke washing’ and refusing to update policies that perpetuate systemic racism at a company level. By the standards of today’s consumers, publishing a supportive ad isn’t enough to be down with the cause, and demonstrates more Conformity than it does Universalism, considering that most large corporations did the same. The values of McDonalds' consumers have changed from requiring Benevolence, to also requiring Self-Direction, which would take the form of social justice efforts being applied internally rather than talked about.
It’s never been perfect, but its history can stand as a reminder for the positive impact brands can have when they live their values authentically and take interest in the values of their consumers. As a researcher, it’s a lesson in looking beneath the surface and defining ‘value’ by multiple definitions.
Amalia (Research Manager, OMTM Americas)