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“Old McDonald’s had a brand...”

The world's biggest fast-food chain trains customers in its own image – but we don't have to be part of its assembly line.

McDonald's is one of the largest global mass consumption brands, straddling the world like a ravenous colossus. With a presence in 119 countries, over 30,000 restaurants and 48 million customers daily (2005 data), it is the world's largest fast food chain.

What is it that McDonald's sell? At first sight, the question may seem foolish, as McDonald's is synonymous with hamburgers. But that is not how the brand sells itself, or how it wishes to be portrayed. Since the 1950s, Ray Croc – the great disseminator of the McDonald's brand – insisted that he was not in the hamburger business, but in show business. McDonald's sell not only bread but circus, too, which makes it an outstanding paradigm of what has been called the “image society”.

The early McDonald's: the pursuit of fun

McDonald's started as a small drive-in in California in the late 1930s, when mass production began with Henry Ford and his Model T and movies were becoming an industry. The appearance of drive-ins brought promise to the business of serving consumers inside their cars. The McDonald brothers (the original owners prior to purchase by Ray Croc) decided in the late 1940s to renovate their drive-in and turn it into a fast food restaurant. Their innovations included replacing all utensils with disposable wrappings; doing away with waiter service – customers would have to leave their cars and order at the counter; and a new way of making and delivering sandwiches: the menu was reformulated and reduced and orders prepared as if on an assembly line.

To encourage the public to identify with their business, the McDonald brothers developed the company's first branded character, a cartoon chef called Speedee. They figured that service speed would be appreciated by customers, as would predictability of product.

In the 1960s the association of brand image, brand character and entertainment was achieved through the creation of clown Ronald McDonald. There was also an architecture and design mix that matched the goal of selling fun. According to his “biography”, provided by the company, Ronald is a smart, sensitive clown who loves hamburgers, fun and children. Ronald McDonald is a superstar, the company's official speaker for children, and became the world's most publicised clown.

Children's pester power was enlisted to boost sales. “Ask Mummy and Daddy to take you to McDonald's.” But the clown's tone was always happy, innocent and sincere, matching his appearance. His look was dictated by McDonald's products. His hat was a tray with a styrofoam hamburger, a bag of French fries and a milk shake. His shoes were shaped like buns and his nose was a cup. He wore a styrofoam belt from which he would magically pull hamburgers.

Ronald McDonald appeared within a culture that was already in process of being branded by consumerism and at a time when television was becoming ever more popular. Mass culture was, and still is, attempting to fill the leisure time of workers with the commodities of the Industrial Revolution and beyond: consumer goods and services of all kinds. The activities of production and promotion are done by workers who then wear their other hat as consumers: only a relative few big owners can stand outside and control this duality, making sure they are the people with real privileges and benefits.

McDonaldisation as part of globalisation

Globalisation is a complex of inter-related processes which have in common the basic idea that relationships and organisations have spread increasingly around the world. Its key components are the destruction of distance barriers, the stretching of relationships beyond national boundaries, a growing awareness of the world as a whole, and an increasing inter-dependence between different parts of the globe.

The world is becoming a singular domesticated space, a place where everyone is in process of becoming assimilated into a common culture – a dominant capitalist culture. The success of fast-food franchises such as McDonald's is a case in point. Ritzer, in his 2001 book The McDonaldization of Society, argues that this is a process to be found not only in food but also in car maintenance, education, child care, supermarkets, cinemas, theme parks, and so on. McDonaldisation represents not just food but also a cultural message. The burger is not only consumed physically but also as an image and an icon of a particular way of life – capitalist way of life. Extravagant claims are made for the “freedom” of personal choice, but this is increasingly being governed and determined by market forces.

Brands and images in socialism?

Nineteenth-century socialists like Marx and Morris didn't have to worry about things like brands and images. There weren't any. Perhaps that last statement is a bit too sweeping. There were probably some early indications of how capitalism would develop from its primarily goods stage to its increasingly services stage (the Great Exhibition of 1851? Barnum and Bailey?).

Then and now it basically was and is the same system – private or state ownership, class division into workers and capitalists, access according to monetary demand. But the emphases have changed over time, especially in what has become known as the First World. It is not that food, clothing and shelter have stopped being marketed. They haven't. It is not that industries and places of work like factories, offices, mines and railways have disappeared. Generally speaking, they haven't. But today, much more than in the past, “intangibles” have been pushed to the front of the market.

Appearances, brands, celebrity, many things to do with computers, entertainment, experiences, fantasies, fashion, icons, illusions, images, lifestyles, mass markets, niche markets, planned obsolescence, retail therapy, show business, simulations, spectacle, virtual reality, waste – all are on the march, even though not everyone is in step. To say that shopping is not what it was is no mere expression of nostalgia – it is to recognise that the dominant capitalist culture has changed for many people the buying of things into a socially-produced and market-promoted but self-administered drug – from “don't really need” to “must have”.

The future shape of socialism is more likely to be influenced by its replacing and converting the later than the earlier forms of capitalism. No one will buy or sell brands, images and suchlike. But does that mean there will be no use for them and therefore no need of them? We can, of course, simply say that the people at the time will decide. But we can be a bit more imaginative, and discuss, admittedly in a very tentative way, plans for a socialist future.

It seems safe to say that brands like McDonald's won't have a brilliant future. Perhaps there will be living museums in which “customers” will stand in line to place their orders for hamburgers and volunteer “staff” will experience for a short while what a McJob was like. Not to everyone's taste, but maybe fun for some, especially children.

There is a better case for the survival – even development – of images in socialism. Take travel, for example. Today the market for mass tourism is being promoted furiously and satisfied recklessly. But it is clear that this trend can't go on. The six and a half billion world's population – let alone the 9 billion expected by 2050 - won't all be able to travel at First World frequencies and distances.

Image – the experience of being there but not the reality – may come to the rescue. “Walking around” an art museum or suchlike is not physically limited. Feeling what it's like to skim over a mountain top is potentially open to everyone. Here we are in the exciting but sometimes scary territory of technology. Bearing in mind the unforeseen inventions of the last 50 years, who knows what the next 50 years will bring? The greatest challenge to be met is how to get from the capitalist world to the socialist world.

STAN PARKER

Note: some material in this article is taken or adapted from Isleide A. Fontenelle, Fantasy sandwiches: image as value in the McDonald's case, World Leisure Journal, 1, 2007.