Should McDonald’s Be Impeached?
Marketing Strategy in a Post-Truth Society
I got off the freeway and drove straight to the car wash. My car is always covered with a fine layer of sand on it when I get back from visiting my parents in Palm Desert, not to mention all the water spots on the side from the parking near the water sprinklers at night.
“Regular wash, please,” I tell the lady who greets me. “No, you need a hand wash. Those water spots won’t come out if we just run it through.”
“How much more?” I ask. More than twice as much, of course. Having had cars washed for several decades now, I was thinking, “Really? Spraying water and soap on the car, towing it through scrubbers and dryers, blasting water to rinse it off and hand-drying won’t get those sprinkler splotches off?
Here’s a case where someone was trying to up-sell by lying, knew she was lying, likely knew that I knew that she knew she was lying, and knew that I would be proved right when my car would emerge squeaky clean from the “Regular Wash.”
This wasn’t “do you want fries with that?” or “do you want to see the dessert menu?” Just pure greed and dishonesty.
Everyone is a marketer now. The up-sell can’t be avoided wherever you go. My dentist does it. So do doctors. “Looks like those two teeth could use new crowns.” Is it really medically necessary? Well, no, but if you wait you could get terrible disease and the teeth might fall out and it will get all infected and you might die! And how likely is that? Not very likely at all, but it could happen!
I blame Trump. He is likely more the manifestation than the cause the cause of our current social ills, a result of lost faith in institutions and the decline of community. Still, he’s made things worse. He has, in the words of the great Daniel Patrick Moynihan, contributed mightily to “defining deviancy down,” making the unacceptable acceptable. The Washington Post now counts over 10,000 false or misleading statements that Trump has made since taking office. That’s a lot of lying, and 40% of the country doesn’t seem to notice or care.
How does he get away with it? How do car washes and doctors and restaurants who keep bringing you bottles of sparkling water made with tap water on-premise and then charge you $30 for all those bottles you thought were free get away with it?
There’s a reason the term “gaslighting” has moved into the mainstream. The Mueller report lays out, in painstaking detail, how Trump tried to obstruct justice. And while there wasn’t sufficient evidence of conspiracy, his campaign was more than ready and willing to get any kind of help from Wikileaks and the Russians they could. Yet, there was “no collusion, no obstruction and total exoneration!” In fact, Trump’s approval rating among Republicans stands at 86%.
In what world is trying to fire the people investigating you not obstruction of justice? The same world, I suppose, where all those products sold on the Home Shopping Network will change your life and make you happy.
That’s the business I’m in. I help companies imbue products and services, sometimes quite ordinary, with positive emotion. A mere soft drink? Not at all. It’s a day-changing, uplifting experience with overtones of belonging, love for our fellow humans and world peace.
I’m a capitalist. I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with casting a product in the most positive light possible and piling on the emotional benefits. People understand that it’s just a soda (which even in the 1950’s, wasn’t fooling anyone about its tooth decaying, sugar-laden, weight-gain inducing qualities), a tube of toothpaste, a breakfast cereal, a smart phone or a cup of coffee.
Is McDonald’s killing people? No. I suppose they eventually could if they force fed you Double Quarter Pounders for years on end. But the hamburgers-fries-shake combo is not a loaded gun. It’s just very bad-for-you food that many find delicious and can’t help but crave. McDonald’s is not my food of choice, and I’m no cardiologist, but what’s wrong with a Big Mac, large fries and a chocolate shake once a week? You gotta live, right? Don’t we all have our vices?
Does McDonald’s lie to us by showing us ads that make their food look so delicious and crave-able? Maybe just a little, since the food never looks as good in real life as on the TV commercial. But they’re not making “good for you claims” or promising a longer life through cheeseburgers.
Is Shake Shack good for you? Not anymore than McDonald’s, but through the magic of marketing, all those upscale New York and L.A. people who wouldn’t be caught dead at McDonald’s line up for almost exactly the same food (except that McDonald’s fries are better) and feel just fine about it.
Regardless, if a burger chain did try to tout any imagined health claims of French fries there would be laws, thankfully, that would prevent them from doing so. Though I do believe that both fries and ketchup were categorized as vegetables for school lunches in the Reagan administration. Seriously. The Republicans might go there, but McDonald’s would never. Not only is the world more transparent than ever, they know they’re all about price, convenience and indulgence.
McDonald’s need not be impeached. They’ve already been tried in the court of the free market and public opinion. The facts are out there – including those concerning the impact of beef-eating on the environment. People can make their own decisions, and indeed, consumers are eating less beef. McDonald’s, while not exactly struggling, will need to successfully address the challenges posed by nutritional facts and public perceptions.
There is still so much to learn about the corruption and criminal enterprise of the Trump organization but more than enough facts have already been revealed. Yet with few exceptions, Republican politicians and their supporters are saying “nothing to see here.”
I’m not going to weigh in on Trump’s impeachment, other to say that his attacks on the free press and his grip on the exclusive source of news for his base threaten democracy in a way that Big Macs never could. The claim that his base “knows who he was when they voted for him” is not valid that context. McDonald’s may spend billions on ads, but it doesn’t have a Fox News posing as a real news organization and truth teller while spewing a 24/7 stream of reports on French Fries as a fitness food. Just as he holds up Roy Cohn as a paragon of legal virtue, I don’t think it too provocative to say that he wishes Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Kelly Conway could be more like Joseph Goebbels.
Still, I feel that the “Light Side of The Force,” in business and in politics, will prevail.
A majority of consumers now choose brands based on what companies stand for and the causes they support. The usual features and benefits have become less important than reputation as the market clearly encourages business to “do the right thing.”
Are we entering a new, Golden Age of Marketing where companies become revolutionaries speaking truth to power? Brands have always needed to “stand for something bigger,” but now that something bigger has to be, well, even bigger. Budweiser doesn’t just provide the feeling of belonging and reward for a hard day of work. It’s about wind power. And equality. And helping our neighbors in times of need.
I wish that I could attribute these kinds of marketing activity entirely to the noble, altruistic, human aspirations of businesses and their customers. While there are many exceptions, I fear that most Americans are still driven by selfishness, that purest of Rand-ian motivations, the ultimate engine driving the free market. We applaud Budweiser for its support of wind power while driving our gas-guzzling SUV’s. It’s easy for us to talk the talk and much harder to walk the walk.
But things don’t change overnight. Until they do. Could you envision legal marijuana, gay marriage or serious discussion of Medicare-For-All ten years ago? Attitudes and behaviors change.
Businesses will do the right thing because they’ll have to. The smart ones, those way ahead of the curve, have been doing the right thing because they want to.
In the new Golden Age of Marketing, authenticity will prevail.