A Warm Convenience: How McDonald’s Sells Fast Food as Family Food

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.

Works Cited

classiccommercial. “1980 COMMERCIALS MCDONALDS FAMILY TIME.” YouTube. YouTube, 17 Nov 2011. Web. 22 July 2013.

FamilyQuarter. “McDonald’s Family Brand Ad- Australia May 2009 (45secs).” YouTube. YouTube, 21 May 2009. Web. 22 July 2013.

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.

Fear and loathing in women’s advertising

It did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase. – David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

If you ask the average person to name one truth about advertising, odds are they will repeat that well-worn idiom: sex sells. Sex is used in advertising like a blunt instrument, beating the consumer over the head with sensory information designed to capture and hold their attention long enough to sell them a product. Perhaps this is why it springs to mind so quickly when the topic is ads — we’re more apt as consumers to notice the bright and the loud, and miss the more fine-edged tools that are used to sell. Perhaps the most commonly employed tool in the advertiser’s box, especially in media targeted at women, is fear. Throughout the decades, ads have built narratives based around creating and exploiting insecurities and then promising the cure for the low, low cost of $9.99.

This fear-based marketing most often focuses on creating insecurity about women’s role as caretaker by creating competition between the target consumer and other women, either real or imaginary, and creates fear focused on loss of love, position, or respect.

Frigidaire Frozen Delights, 1927 (Duke University Library Digital Collection)

Frigidaire Frozen Delights, 1927 (Duke University Library Digital Collection)

In this Frigidaire booklet, we see a classic example of this subtle technique. While on its surface the image appears to be a pleasant but innocuous story about a good hostess, it actually contains two important themes common to fear-based advertising. The woman in question is held up as an example of the ideal hostess, who serves as the public face of her household (and an extension of her husband), intent on impressing her guests with her good food and modern techniques. What this ad demonstrates is that it is not enough just to cook well, but to be on the cutting edge — modern sanitation and more importantly, modern appliances are necessary to fit this ideal of household ambassador. The consumer is left wondering what role she would play in this scenario, the cutting-edge, lauded hostess or the impressed (and probably behind-the-times) guest? If the latter, the solution is right at hand — Frigidaire appliances to bring her up to date!

Heinz Soup, Punch Magazine, November 23, 1949 (Flickr)

Heinz Soup, Punch Magazine, November 23, 1949 (Flickr)

Here we see another example of advertising pitting modern women versus the dreaded “old-fashioned” ways. Perhaps borrowing a page from Campbell’s playbook (Parkin in Kitchen Culture in America, p. 59) Heinz chose to subvert the notion that home cooking is a sign of love by pitting the laborious process of the (fantastical) from-scratch process to the modern, processed version that’s just as good. From a can is just as “rich-and-rare” and will earn the same smiles, and no camels need be involved. By making the kind of cooking that women likely grew up with seem both laborious and silly, Heinz attempted to pit “modern” women consumers against the past and by extension, their own mothers to sell them on the idea that can was best.

Folgers Instant commercial, c. 1950s (YouTube)

Folgers Instant commercial, c. 1950s (YouTube)

Of course, women had more to fear than just their friends and loved-ones judging and outperforming them. In this Folger’s ad from the 1950s, this housewife’s sub-par morning coffee is stacked up — and loses — to the “girls down at the office” who make better brews on their hot plates. Her failure to satisfactorily provide for her husband (and his refusal to reward her with physical affection after explicitly comparing her unfavorably to the unseen and therefore more ominous “girls” at his office) is a prime example of the message that the chief duty of food preparation is to provide for others, as “ads rarely portrayed women finding gratification in eating… just procuring the [correct] food was evidence of women’s love” (Parkin, Food is Love, p. 37). There is no evidence in this ad that the thought of how she likes her coffee has even crossed her mind, and it is only after she takes the advice of her wiser friend (and adequately demonstrates her love through the right product) that she is rewarded with the chaste kiss she was denied earlier.

Ivory Snow ad, c. 1950s (YouTube)

Ivory Snow ad, c. 1950s (YouTube)

Though the housewife of the Folger’s ad was happy to receive wise counsel from her friend, there’s little doubt that the average woman viewing the ad would wish to identify with the in-the-know friend and not the housewife with burnt coffee. Other ads also played with this theme of inter-neighborhood rivalry, but chose to feature the “in-the-know” woman as the center of the narrative. In an Ivory Snow ad from the same decade, we see the pretty blonde housewife first show off her treasured trousseau to her friends who are full of admiration, then later see her stop a friend from using generic detergent for a job that clearly calls for Ivory Snow!

Pan American Coffee Bureau, Life Magazine, August 6, 1945 (Google Books)

Pan American Coffee Bureau, Life Magazine, August 6, 1945 (Google Books)

Perhaps our protagonist is friends with the hard-working housewife from a Life magazine ad for the Pan-American Coffee Bureau, who knows that iced coffee is the secret to cool and collected summertime chores that eludes her disheveled neighbors. Again, the competent woman is front and center in the image and clearly dominating the narrative. Like the Ivory Snow ad, she not only knows what she’s doing but even enjoys her chores, helped along by the products that give her the edge over other women. The target consumer is meant to aspire to be that competent woman, to imagine herself the envy of the neighborhood housewives, and rather than having to discover the tools and techniques to assist her in this herself, the advertisements are selling her the products that will get her there in no time. They embody the ideal of seamless perfection, “offering a smooth surface of cleanliness and harmony that covered up any trace of flurry, mishap, or sweat” (Shapiro, Perfection Salad, p. 13), and through their modern techniques and polished demeanor thereby conquer the old and outdated.

By constantly weighing images of good, efficient, modern, and “together” women against images of outmoded, old-fashioned, uninformed women engaged in visible labor, advertising sought to create and exploit a fear in their target audience of falling into the latter category, and offering easy solutions to avoid these pitfalls. It was not enough to keep house, entertain, and provide love for your family, but it must look effortless and it must inspire envy in your peers or risk being the envying party. And just like sex has not stopped selling, this fear and competition narrative has not gone out of style either — although now with the wonders of computer editing, the women we’re competing against in advertising now? Ourselves, minus a Swiffer.

Swiffer WetJet commercial, 2013 (YouTube)

Swiffer WetJet commercial, 2013 (YouTube)

Bibliography

Parkin, Katherine, “Campbell’s Soup and the Long Shelf Life of Traditional Gender Roles.” In Kitchen Culture in America: Popular Representations of Food, Gender, and Race, edited by Sherrie A. Inness, 51-67. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

Parkin, Katherine. Food is Love: Advertising and Gender Roles in Modern America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.

Shapiro, Laura. Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986.