Every year during the holidays from 1982 to 1991, McDonald’s would air a commercial that, thanks to its consistency, has become as synonymous with Christmas as candy canes and reindeer. In it, a group of children go ice skating on a pond in the woods, all taking to the ice with great enthusiasm, except for one runty kid who sucks at ice skating. He repeatedly slips and falls behind. To the awe of the kids, Ronald McDonald skates in. Now, if it were today and a clown descended upon a group of unaccompanied minors, there would be an eight-part murder mystery docuseries on Netflix about it. But it was the 1980s, so the children join hands to skate in line with Ronald.
The orchestral music swells like a climax in a Disney film as Ronald McDonald notices the runty skater. He scoops him up in his arms, lifting him above the others. In being touched by Ronald, the kid is made whole, ascended, loved unconditionally. It’s like a Jesus parable. With no mention of food or the McDonald’s restaurant whatsoever, the commercial boldly sells us nothing but Ronald McDonald himself.
This is the commercial that lives in my mind rent free. For other older American millennials and Gen X-ers, it might be a different McDonald’s ad, but surely we all have one. Alongside memories of first kisses, graduations, and the birth of a child, there’s the Big Mac chant: “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, and sesame seed bun,” making you crave a Big Mac from a place of nostalgic starvation you’ll never be able to fully satiate. From “Mac Tonight” to “I’m Lovin’ It,” McDonald’s advertising is part of our national consciousness, embedded in ways that no other commercials before or since have ever quite achieved.
So what makes McDonald’s advertising so impossible to forget? All brands berate us with ads that promise to make us happier, healthier, smarter, and safer. But McDonald’s has always seemed to offer us something more — something familial and more like love. This is the sinister genius of the Golden Arches.
The generations of American children born in the 1970s and ’80s could reliably plot a timeline of memories alongside the year-by-year ad programs of “You Deserve a Break Today” and “It’s a Good Time for the Great Taste.” At a young age, we performed living room talent shows to the commercial jingles, incorporated plastic drive-thru toys into our play, and had birthday parties in McDonald’s side lobbies. Even an entire movie, Mac and Me, served as an extended-play commercial for the fast-food chain. It’s an oft-cited statistic that 96 percent of American schoolchildren can identify Ronald McDonald. The only fictional character with more recognition is Santa Claus. As my friend Samantha Grier, a photographer in Cincinnati, recalls, the commercials were so a part of the culture that they didn’t even feel like advertising. “Remember that 45 record of the ‘Menu Song’ they sent out?” she asks me. “My brother and I used to rehearse it over and over, like it was going to be important.”
Of course, McDonald’s knew exactly what it was doing. Beginning in the 1960s, the chain invested millions into its now-iconic branding with French tile roofing at all locations and assembly-line food production lifted out of Henry Ford’s dreams. It was unheard of for a burger restaurant to go to such lengths, but clearly McDonald’s was onto something, so slogans and commercial jingles followed like a steady drumbeat. By the bicentennial, McDonald’s had served its 20 billionth burger and had gripped its claws into everything and everyone, aggressively marketing with culturally targeted ads that are eyebrow-raising today.
The chain’s advertising tactics shifted again in 1979, introducing the Happy Meal with its precious toy baubles. The brand also moved away from simply promoting good bargains or an easy option for working mothers who wanted a night off from cooking. Rather than selling a product, McDonald’s was going to market an ideology. The ’80s were marked in part by the fear, largely held by white suburban parents, that dangerous outside forces were encroaching from all directions. The AIDS epidemic, stranger danger, the infiltration of crack cocaine in urban communities, and nuclear threats loomed large. Inside the home, the concept of the nuclear family was shaken by rising divorce rates. Around every corner was a well for a child to fall into or an apple with a razor blade in it. And through it all, the TV babysat and soothed a generation of kids, McDonald’s commercials being a particularly comforting swaddle from morning to night.
In October, New Yorker food writer Helen Rosner tweeted about a McDonald’s commercial that’s been lodged in her brain since childhood, this one featuring a girl at a music recital who’s thinking about McDonald’s instead of the piano. She makes mistakes and the crowd grimaces, but she’s off on a chocolate milkshake dream, too high on the thought of sugar to care. “This song is literally never not running through my head,” Rosner said, then, echoing another familiar experience for millennials and Gen Xers, wrote, “We taped The Wizard of Oz off tv when I was a kid and this ad was in one of the breaks and I think I’ve seen it seven thousand times.” Similarly, my own grandmother kept her wood-veneer VHS cabinet under lock and key to protect her copy of Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit and the cartoons that she lovingly bootlegged for us off television. As kids, my sister and I memorized those tapes, the McDonald’s commercials fossilized in our minds. Decades later, we’re still digging them up in our brains, piecing the commercials and our childhoods back together, assembling the bits and bones.
The McDonald’s ad programs of the late 1970s and ’80s had a specific aesthetic: fade in from black, a piano tinkling over a peach-hued vignette of life. A singer comes in with the enthusiasm of a sitcom theme song, like The Facts of Life on steroids. The commercials were always saccharine and sublime. Uncanny and otherworldly. Perhaps a little desperate, perhaps even beautiful. In “Daddy’s Little Girl,” a father drives his pre-teen daughter and friends to McDonald’s, where they giggle and gossip about boys. He reflects upon his daughter’s burgeoning independence — when did she start liking boys? Remember when Dad used to be her only man and she’d sit upon his knee? It’s like something out of a health class film strip, only it hopes to sell you fries.
Sometimes the McDonald’s commercials of the ’80s had entire narrative arcs, with recurring characters and cliffhangers. In “Golden Time,” two senior citizens exchange glances across the lobby of a McDonalds, noting their matching Big Mac meals. The gentleman asks if it’s okay to sit at the lady’s table and a new relationship blossoms. A few years later, in “The New Kid,” the couple is married and the elderly man is starting a new job at McDonald’s. Now in the winter of his years, he has no time or desire to fart around and go fishing with his buddies. At the restaurant, the other employees hope “the new kid” is cute. Of course, they find out that he’s 90 and cute in a much different way. No matter, though. He already has his best girl at home.
Asked about her most remembered McDonald’s commercial, educator and poet Karen Head tells me it’s “Little Sister”: “the one with the older brother sharing his fries with his younger sister still brings a tear to my eye.” In it, a pair of siblings share and bond over their love of french fries as they grow up. Though the young woman is now too busy with her homecoming date to annoy her older brother, they still make time to signal each other with fries from across the room.
McDonald’s commercials were among our earliest images of love, humanity, sexuality, and even rapture. Sometimes I think they were created by aliens, taking their best guess at how we interacted with and consumed food, inviting us inside the television and toward the light, like we were Carol Anne in Poltergeist.
By the 1990s, the ads shifted away from the heart and soul that made them stand out through the ’80s. The commercials began to look more like colorful Barney episodes, with a club house of kids bopping to Lovin Spoonful covers of “Do You Believe in Magic.” They had all of the greatest hits of the ’90s: celebrity spokespeople such as Michael Jordan, singing dogs, puppet-mouthed McNuggets, and monkeys. Then, in the 2000s, McDonald’s faced criticism over America’s obesity rates and finger-wagging from books and films such as Fast Food Nation and Supersize Me. As sales went into crisis decline over several quarters, ad agencies scrambled to look for new ways to worm inside us. The ads became ironic and detached. The jarring sincerity was gone, displaced by R&B slow jamz about creeping on McNuggets, or Filet-O-Fish singalong commercials as self-conscious as Wes Anderson films. “I’m Lovin’ It” is McDonald’s longest-running ad campaign, now in its 17th year.
The oldest Gen Xers are now in their mid-50s, while the youngest millennials are in their mid-20s. We’re adults now, and most of us no longer wish to euphorically ice-skate with clowns or mime at our brothers with french fries as they oddly supervise our dates from across the dining room. But we have always had a strange, symbiotic relationship with these commercials in our heads. What does McDonald’s want from us now? And what do we want from McDonald’s? These days, the savviest of brands have moved to social media. They retweet us, nudge us, poke us. They cajole us and give us heart-eye emojis. It makes our stomach flutter, feeling like a flirtation. The heart button is like a brush on the leg. We’re only human, after all. But they are not. Their interactions and advertising remain as uncanny as ever, even as we try to convince ourselves, as we always have, that this is real love.
MM Carrigan is a Baltimore-area writer and weirdo who enjoys staring directly into the sun. Their work has appeared in Lit Hub, The Rumpus, and PopMatters. They are the editor of Taco Bell Quarterly. Tweets @thesurfingpizza.
Carolyn Figel is a freelance artist living in Brooklyn.