Food, Folks, and Football: McDonald's Bite Sized Super Bowl Formula

December 1, 2006

In 1996, the McDonald's Arch was even more identifiable than the Christian cross. Partly that was the result of its high-touch advertising on early Super Bowls. In 1954, the year Ray Kroc introduced the Ronald McDonald clown (played by Willard Scott), his agency, D'Arcy McManus Masius suggested buying two minutes at $170,000 each on the CBS telecast and wrangled some extra time onSaturday morning cartoons. McDonald's also bought time on NBC that year. The following month its store volume jumped 22 percent on a national average and McDonald's became a Super Bowl believer.

Some years, though, the chain sat on its buns, sidelined by the high cost of air time or its own lack of "news." But when it did want to shout a message to the world it used the Super Bowl as its megaphone.

Founder Ray Kroc used to say that McDonald's was "not in the hamburger business; we're in show business" and its ads lived up to that mandate. "It's never been about slick slogans or calling attention to itself, but rather about getting the world comfortable with us, and using humanity to establish this friendly homey turf as ours," said Paul Shrage, formerly McDonald's chief marketing officer. As society became increasingly high tech, McDonald's advertising went increasingly high touch. In addition to "bite and smile" shots, its used likeable characters in realistic situations, speaking natural dialogue, and filmed from unexpected ways such as extreme close-ups or in slow motion. Music is distinctive and mood-enhancing. And there's a little magic moment that surprises you or chokes you up.

In 1970s, the DDB agency played up the emotional rewards of a McDonald's experience. First an energetic cleaning crew belts out "You Deserve a Break Today, So Get Up and Get Away." Then, in 1974, a tongue twister celebrated the six-year old Big Mac: Two-all-beef-patties-special-sauce- lettuce-cheese-pickles-onions-on-a-sesame-seed-bun." After an Alabama franchisee ran a promotion awarding free Big Macs to passersby who recited it correctly within four seconds, jingle-mania spread. In rapid succession came "We Do It All for you;" "You, You're the One;" and "Nobody Can Do It Like McDonald's Can;" plus a revival of "You Deserve a Break Today" in 1981.

In 1986 when Herb was bombing for Burger King, McDonald was the game's largest advertiser. It had something new to crow about: its McDLT, a hot burger on one side and cold lettuce and tomato on the other. The next year to attract more older workers, it hired septuagenarian Lowell Sexton, as its "New Kid" who comes home from his first day on the job and proudly tells his wife he doesn't know "how they ever got along without me." A year later, it enlisted Michael Jordan and a seeming transmission glitch: the camera fuzzes over so it can command attention to blurt, "We were going to wait till halftime but we were just too excited. ...McDonald's proudly announces, the cheddar melt." There was no sound throughout.

"Food, Folks and Fun" came in 1990 to "restore the humanity" that had been somewhat leeched by a barrage of price and game promotions. Americans had been "out-slicked and out-advertised" for so long that they "hungered for basic human values," said Shrage, who positioned McDonald's as an old friend that makes visitors comfortable and welcome. He rejected witty spots in favor of emotional tugging ones like a tyke chronicling his hard day at preschool or a single mom sharing job woes with her precocious daughter over a Happy Meal, or a McDonald's employee with Down's syndrome who relishes life...and his job.

"Perfect Season," a warm, fuzzy paean to Pee Wee football from Super Bowl 1992 showcased the real heroes - dads posing as goal posts-and reminded that a good day wasn't determined by who won the game but by sharing the afternoon with muddy kids more interested in grasshoppers and McDonald's than gridiron strategy. Steven Spielberg later developed it into the movie "Little Giants." McDonald's hoped to "trigger the crave" in Super Bowl 1993 and to celebrate its long relationship with the NBA. In "Showdown," Larry Bird challenged Michael Jordan to play for Jordan's Big Mac and fries. Their shots progress from a simple on one knee execution to absurd trickery that culminates with the two atop a building across the Chicago expressway aiming to put the ball "over the river, off the billboard, through the window, off the wall...nothing but net." The next year, Charles Barkley wheedled his way into a rematch with more preposterous shots "around Saturn and through the Big Dipper." But that veered too far from McDonald's mantra; many viewers mistook it for a Nike ad.

Another tour de force, "Fossil Fuel," reinforced McDonald's folksiness, and connected. Inside a natural history museum at night a giant Tyrannosaurus Rex is awakened by the intoxicating smell of McDonald's fries and seeks them out. When the guard realizes what Dino wants, he playfully makes it do tricks, doling out fries as training bait.

In the 1996 game, McDonald's scored big by going small. An adorable infant coos when her swing rises up, then whimpers when it falls away. A reverse cut shows what's causing her mood shift: the golden arches. While it was cheered, used overseas and parodied, "Swing" couldn't stem a slide that year for McDonald's. Wounded by such mid-90s blunders as the Arch Deluxe sandwich and Campaign 55 discount program, McDonald's sat out the next few games and returned in 2000 with renditions of "Did Somebody Say McDonald's?" In 2002 it reminded viewers of their real values. A pee-wee runs in the rain to catch a descending football, then revels with food and fries in McDonald's as a voice wonders: "Did he catch it? Does it matter?"

Franchises ultimately ushered McDonald's off the field. They were demanding more hard sell and promotional tactics. The Super Bowl isn't the place for that. Fans here don't want to know how much a  Big Mac costs; they want to be entertained.


"The Super Bowl of Advertising: Are The Advertisers Still Winning The Game?" Bernice Kanner. New York: ANA, 2006.