BY Matthew DeBord in Profiles | 09 SEP 96
Featured in
Issue 30

Young Meat

McDonald's Doesn't Want Your Kids ­ Do You?

BY Matthew DeBord in Profiles | 09 SEP 96

'We'll meet you on the other side of childhood' proclaims the New York City bus ad for McDonald's' new Arch Deluxe hamburger, alongside a black-and-white photograph of a puberty-addled boy sporting those twin hallmarks of early teen opprobrium: a dreadful haircut and a mouthful of braces. Just what waits for this generic geek on the other side of kiddiedom is not entirely clear, but what McDonald's would like carnivores to believe is that the Arch Deluxe is not a meal for those in the grips of youth. The Arch Deluxe is for grown-ups.

The burger itself is meant, through culinary design, to escape Mickey D's' decade-long flirtation with the simpler desires of children and to offer a serious dining experience in place of fun food. Since kids despise their veggies, the Arch Deluxe comes standard with lettuce and tomatoes; one of the ads exploits this angle by showing an African-American child grimacing at the prospect of having to eat anything other than beef or sugar. Because kids have no understanding of fanciful breads, the AD rests on a 'soft, buttery, homestyle bakery bun'. All high-profile McDonald's sandwiches require a custom sauce, so the Arch Deluxe gets a creamy mixture of Dijon mustard and mayonnaise - a posher cousin to the special sauce of the warhorse Big Mac. Even the name resonates with nostalgic, elderly tones: 'Arch' recalls the yellow double arches of the company's original restaurant outside Chicago, 'Deluxe' the deluxe hamburger option on the menus of coffee shops that McDonald's has replaced. Calculated to lend a upscale aura to the lumpen hamburger, ad agency Fallon McElligot's campaign and McDonald's' public relations efforts succeeded wildly: a month after the Arch Deluxe's introduction, Ronald McDonald himself appeared on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange with platters of the burgers to celebrate the hundred-millionth sandwich sold.

Predictably, the Arch Deluxe tastes as bad as any other McDonald's sandwich, worse if one goes for the heart-attack option and orders the thing with fatty strips of American bacon. Not a huge surprise, but notable given the number of actual adults who responded to the ads. Their attention teased by the abrupt reappearance of Ronald the Clown in the TV spots (Ronald shimmying at a disco, Ronald shooting pool in a gloomy billiards hall) and further tweaked by the campaign's billboard component, adults in the demographic that McDonald's was after couldn't help but rub up against the classic child-love question: when does innocent affection slip over the edge into debauched amusement?

McDonald's is, along with Disney and the US Federal Government, one of the world economy's prime manipulators of children. Preying on the basic contradiction that children come from sex but are supposed to be asexual entities, the Arch Deluxe campaign represents the trend of wielding images of children for commercial ends at its most disturbing. The new twist brought by the ads is the shift from entertainment, through products like Happy Meals and tie-ins with popular kiddie movies, to commercial molestation. 'We'll meet you on the other side of childhood' sounds a lot like an illicit come-on, a promise to someday deliver scenes out of the recent (recalled) TV ads for Calvin Klein Jeans. At least Klein's models - trashy white girls and blasé white boys taking direction from an off-camera lecher in a tacky wood-panelled basement - hovered near the age of consent. Ronald's kids bear closer resemblance to snapshots from Lewis Carroll's photo album, particularly one prepubescent girl in a billboard ad who showcases a pair of saucer eyes that would have set Humbert Humbert's vocabulary aflutter.

Contemporary advertising understands that Big Folks in increasing numbers want Little Folks, and not merely to have someone to put through college. It's academically trendy now to dissect Victorian attitudes toward children and contrast them with our own less overtly libertine ideas about what kids are for, but as soon as the Victorians are put in their sick place, Ronald McDonald rears his grinning head to demonstrate that what has changed aren't appetites, but the means by which those appetites are expressed. At least NAMBLA (the North American Man/Boy-Love Association) comes right out and says what they want to do with little boys. McDonald's wants instead to take the happy meat from children's mouths so that adults can have something grown-up to chew on.