Thursday, September 08, 2005

An Interesting Study of Why Effective Advertising Really Works

About Mcdonald's, and the documentary "Super Size Me"

again, I wrote this for school, but I figure since I'm doing alot of writing for school right now, I might as well share it to keep the blog fed :)

In 2003, Morgan Spurlock took the world by surprise with his Academy Award nominated documentary Super Size Me. In his documentary, his health took a drastic dive when vegan Spurlock chose to eat nothing but food from McDonalds for 30 days. This documentary was very popular, and Spurlock became an anti fast food celebrity. A strange thing happened about a year after the documentary ratcheted Morgan Spurlock to fame: Mcdonald’s restaurants took the super-sizing option off their menu, and started promoting a “healthier choices” menu. Advertisements for the restaurant chain began to feature a new, physically active Ronald Mcdonald. Mcdonalds restaurants told the public that this change had nothing to do with Super Size Me, but a savvy public suspected otherwise. I intend to use Roland Barthes Semiotic theory to illustrate why this popular documentary had the ability to change a mammoth corporation.

Barthes would probably label fast food advertising as its own semiotic system. He maintained that the most important semiotic systems in our culture serve to maintain the status quo. This is because the mythology that surrounds these systems tells people that things are the way they ought to be, always have been, and always will be. This was good for Mcdonalds, whose mandate is to get as many people as possible to eat at their restaurants. As far as the fast food chain was concerned, they did not have to change anything about the way they conducted business as long as their symbols were working as part of a well functioning advertising campaign. After all, if customers are still walking in the door, why change? For Mcdonalds restaurants limited, the most recognized symbol in their arsenal was of course, the Golden Arches themselves. In Mcdonalds’ very effective advertising campaign, this sign was associated with family, fun, low prices, convenience food and “You deserve a break today.” Mcdonalds had already very expertly turned the symbol of a clown into a mythic or connative symbol for fast food rather than its original meaning as a symbol for childhood innocence and fun. According to Barthes, this transformation in meaning follows a typical semiotic pattern. Every connotative sign is really the result of two sign systems that are interconnected. The first system is very simple, the signifier (in this case a clown) and the signified (childhood fun at the circus) combined to make the sign (clown = fun). The sign from this first system then goes on to become the signifier in the second system, and thus creates an ideologial sign. In Mcdonalds case, the signifier (clown = fun) combines with the signified (fast food restaurant geared towards families) to create a very successful advertising campaign (eating at Mcdonalds is fun, and will make your family happy). Barthes tells us that the original sign does not lose its message in this transformation, but since the signifier can’t tell you about the sign’s historical or cultural past, the mythical or connotative sign remains hollow and false.

One of the main problems with hollow, mythic signs, according to Barthes is that only those with knowledge of semiotics can spot the “crust of falsity” that these signs carry. Spurlock may have understood how effectively Mcdonalds was using the symbols of Ronald Mcdonald and the Golden Arches to target people from all walks of life, but most peole eating at the restaurant did not stop to think why it was that Mcdonalds’ advertising campaign had succeeded in getting them in the door that day. While most people saw Mcdonalds as a cheap burger and a good milkshake, Barthes would have seen it as a place involved in “dangerous mythmaking” and we can imagine that Morgan Spurlock experienced similar feelings, leading to his decision to make the movie. Barthes and Spurlock would tell us that when Mcdonalds uses a mythical symbol to indicate to us that “fast food is fun” we feel somehow like we can buy our way out of feelings that are less than fun. Many of the people that eat at Mcdonalds are lower income parents and their families. Being a parent is not always fun, especially when you have to work all day to support your kids, you shuttle them around to their after school activities, and you’re left without the time or energy to cook dinner in the evening. So you take them to the place which promises that fun is just a Happy Meal away, because the sign tells us that “being in a family should be easy and fun.” In this manner, the happy family and their easy life is co-opted by Mcdonalds. It takes a pretty powerful use of semiological warfare to help us see through that fog.

Perhaps without intending a semiological protest, Morgan Spurlock’s movie created a competing sign. With the process described above, he successfully turned Mcdonalds’ “golden arches” into a signifier for a sign that now represented heart disease, obesity, and early death. This second order, connotative sign produced by Spurlock was enough to cause many people to boycott Mcdonalds, and Mcdonalds to change it’s entire menu. Essentially, Spurlock took the ideological baggage, or connotation of the Mcdonalds symbol, and replaced it with a new connotation in the minds of those who watched his documentary. The resulting signified (the concept of Mcdonalds’ food being unhealthy) had more of an affinity to its signifier (fast food), than Mcdonalds’ original connotation did. Barthes interpretation of signs always upholding the values of the dominant class is happily debatable in this case. Spurlock effectively created a positive connotative sign. This sign encouraged people to think twice about what Mcdonalds was really offering them, and caused the burger giant to start a re-branding campaign in defense. However, if the rebranding campaign is successful, then maybe the truth is closer to what Barthes and sociologist Dick Hebdige propose: a brief period ofsubversive semiotic power, which is later co-opted by mainstream society. I prefer the former, because it is hopeful to think that somebody working inside a dominant medium (in this case filmmaking, which is too often used to enforce the values corporations) can change the world for the better. I’m sure Morgan Spurlock would believe in one man’s power to create positive change, but Barthes would probably tell us that we are being too idealistic. Only time will give us the answer.


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