Food is never just food in our society, especially when it comes to our families. As consumers, we think about food selection, preparation, and serving as a physical representation of the love we feel for our family, a way to give tangible proof of that love, and a measurable expression of that love. As a culture, we value food that requires time: “from scratch” and homemade goods, elaborate meals that carry the weight of tradition, planning, and careful preparation (generally, Parkin, Food is Love). This leaves quite the challenge for companies determined to sell us on foods of convenience — how do they ease the minds of consumers who believe that food is an act of love and appeal to both their efficiency minded lifestyles and desire for emotional connection? How to reconcile these two seemingly disparate interests?
One way that McDonald’s, perhaps the name most commonly associated with fast food in the world, tackled this conundrum with a subtle narrative focused on the time saved for busy families eating at their restaurants translating into “together time” that is all the more enjoyable for being able to have good food without the work. By focusing on the “treat” aspect of a meal from McDonald’s and emphasizing family time and conversation, these ads seek to alleviate the anxiety parents might feel about using convenience food and shifting the focus instead to what convenience “savings” means as a reward.
In this 1980 ad we see an early example of this mindset, where a breakfast prepared by McDonalds means a leisurely morning for the family, who get to hang out in bed, get dressed up for their meal, then take a bike trip together to McDonald’s and “take a well-earned break” from cooking and food preparation for the weekend. The first images presented in this ad are images of family — father being woken by his children, mother braiding her daughter’s hair, children playing and laughing together. The images of food follow this feel-good set-up, creating first the longing for a family morning like this and then how to achieve it: “fresh and hot” eggs, pancakes, and sausage from McDonald’s! And in case there was any lingering anxiety about a fast food breakfast, well McDonald’s assures the parents that they deserve a break today, and no one can provide one like McDonald’s can.
In another ad from the same era, we see a very different narrative of a father who isn’t getting the leisurely time with his daughter that he desires because of their fast-paced lives. He doesn’t get home from work until she’s asleep, and when he’s home she has schoolwork and dance classes that take up all her attention. In this ad, rather than acknowledging the reality that it is more than likely a consequence of a convenience-based lifestyle, McDonald’s positions itself as the solution for that lifestyle. Like the first family, dad and daughter deserve a break from their hectic schedules, and that break is a meal they get to share of burgers and fries. We know this is a special meal for them because the father make sure his daughter gets a sundae as a treat. The idea that McDonald’s provides a “break” from life has moved from a lyric in the previous jingle to the tagline of this commercial, further emphasizing their position as the outpost of family time in an otherwise crazy life.
Furthering on this “shelter from the schedule” narrative, in 1985 McDonald’s produced this ad featuring a father working third-shift who, because of McDonald’s, was able to meet his wife and daughter for breakfast before going home to bed. Because of the wife’s professional clothes and the daughter’s school outfits (which suggest that they are on their way to work and school after breakfast), there is a strong suggestion in this ad that because McDonald’s is close and convenient to his work, they are providing the only meaningful family time the father will have that day. Once again the convenience is the selling point because is enables family time to happen — the mother would be too busy to make breakfast for everyone in time to meet the father, and the father is tired from his long night of work and couldn’t make it home in time for a meal. Because of McDonald’s they are able to see one another and enjoy delicious food. Once again McDonald’s is the savior for hard working, busy families.
Obviously this narrative must have been working for the company, since we can see it used again almost thirty years later in this 2009 Australian ad. Echoing the 1980 Saturday morning setting, this modern version features a busy family on their way to soccer practice for their two sons, who stop at “Macca’s” afterward for a meal together. In contrast to the earlier family, this one is certainly together on this weekend morning but seems to be lacking in quality time, each so busy with practice, other parents, and their teammates to give each other meaningful attention. Once again, McDonald’s is the solution to this craziness — it isn’t until they sit down together to eat that they’re able to interact with one another, and are even rewarded with sibling bonding and alone time as adults while the kids are playing. The tagline here is another promise — because of the convenience of McDonald’s, you will be able to love your Saturday mornings instead of just getting through all the things you need to do in your busy lives together.
Finally in this 2011 McDonald’s Arabia ad, the message has gone global. Now instead of just taking a break, we see the children demanding it of their parents, pulling them away from work, meetings, and their Blackberries to spend time with them, completing the circle of McDonald’s as a quick way to enhance a free moment to an active facilitator of those moments. The convenience of a ready-made meal isn’t just a treat but a way to have “family time forever,” something that is always ready when we need it to be. Interestingly, in this ad the McDonald’s logo doesn’t appear until the very end, and there is no McDonald’s food seen at all. The focus is now totally on the family, the benefit of being together, and it’s a given that McDonald’s is the place that facilitates it. Showing fluffy eggs and sizzling sausage (or even just the cartons as in the previous ad) isn’t necessary because the food is familiar enough that it can be evoked without visuals. What’s important is the time spent together, and it’s obvious where the parents are headed once the kids get them out the office door.
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McDonaldsArabia. “McDonald’s Family Time Forever.” YouTube. YouTube, 21 May 2009. Web. 25 Sep 2011.
Parkin, Katherine. Food is Love: Advertising and Gender Roles in Modern America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.
TotallyToonz. “1985 McDonalds Breakfast Commercial – Night Shift Dad.” YouTube. YouTube, 28 Jun 2011. Web. 22 July 2013.
tracy80sgirl. “VINTAGE 80’S MCDONALD’S COMMERCIAL DADDY’S GIRL WITH FATHER AND DAUGHTER.” YouTube. YouTube, 25 Nov 2009. Web. 22 July 2013.