TV UK, 18 July

The Money Programme couldn't decide whether people are sick of McDonald's, or addicted to it.

Dolan Cummings

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Tuesday night’s Money Programme special on McDonald’s (BBC2) was interesting as much for what it said about business in general as for its insights into this particular subject.

The premise was that McDonald’s is losing its grip on the fast food market, partly because it has taken its eyes off the fries (ie, let service and quality slip), and partly because of a cultural shift. That shift isn’t so much against fatty food, though that’s an aspect of it, as against big companies per se. People haven’t stopped eating hamburgers and fries, but they are more likely to blame McDonald’s if they get fat as a consequence.

Apart from the spurious rubbish explored in the programme about fast food being addictive (I mean, good luck with your rats, Dr Boffo, but we’re talking about people with votes and gun licenses here), a lot rests on the alleged power of marketing. Economists talked in mystical terms about whether the McDonald’s brand has ‘run its course’, or can be revived. And an ‘international brand consultant’ was unchallenged when she said that its brand was the most valuable asset that any company had.

When business people themselves attribute brands with such power and even agency (Good luck with your world domination plans, Mr MBA, but…), it isn’t surprising if lawyers try to take advantage.

One of the consequences of The West Wing being on so late on Channel 4, is that I’ve been watching Ruby Wax’s Commercial Breakdown on BBC1 while I wait. The run is over now, and it was a repeat anyway, but you know the sort of thing: ‘funny adverts’ from around the world. But actually some of them are funny. I particularly enjoyed the one last week with the guy getting his eye poked through a hole in a wall, though I can’t remember what it was advertising.

With adverts now widely regarded as an artform in their own right, it is often hard to tell what they are selling us. This is a shame, because as critics of this new artform, rather than passive consumers of supposedly behaviour-controlling mindwaves, we ought to be able to reward or punish the artists’ patrons. Sometimes this is impossible anyway. I like the IBM ads, but I’m in no position to buy an integrated management system even if I wanted one.

On the other hand, the BT adverts with the stick men are so awful that I’m tempted to switch all my telecoms business to Russian gangsters, and maybe I will. The worst thing about these ads, in fact, is that they elevate crapness to an aesthetic principle, perhaps laced with some sort of Berlusconiesque ‘irony’. Maybe BT is rebelling against the cult of the brand. More likely, its just indulging in it really badly.

Finally, no, I don’t speak Micra, and I hate those adverts so much that I wouldn’t drive a Micra even if A) you paid me, B) I could drive, and C) it wasn’t a woman’s car.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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