Wednesday, June 9, 2010

McDonald's comes back out of le closet

The fast food chain McDonald's has recently released an interesting TV ad in France featuring a young gay character talking with his father. It's notable not just because it features a gay character in a big multinational company's commercial, but also because the character is actually hiding his sexuality.  You can see the spot with English subtitles here:

The ad has gained a lot of online attention. The spot itself has been seen by nearly 2m people on YouTube and there are countless sites (including repostings on YouTube) where commentators have made their views known about the ad. These views range from a positive appreciation of McDonald's for acknowledging the gay community to some pretty nasty homophobic vitriol. Somewhere in between there are those who are asking why a fast food company should even be mentioning someone's sexuality, and those that are questioning whether McDonald's is trying to reach out to a new, and potentially prosperous targt market. As we have explored in a recent paper (downloadable at SSRN), corporations have increasingly been involved in identity politcs, and this raises a number of critical debates about the intermingling of business and politics.

To understand the significance of McDonald's 'gay ad' though, we need to put it in context. The ad is one part of a larger campaign launched by the company last year featuring the strapline 'Venez Comme Vous Etre' (Come as You Are). The campaign includes film and print ads, viral videos and other stuff. The basic message of the campaign is everyone's welcome at McDonald's, however you're dressed, whatever your age or race. And whatever your sexual orientation. The official company line is that series "recognizes the diversity of McDonald's customers in France."

It's all part of the cosmopolitan identity that multinationals like McDonald's are increasingly seeking to create. Remember that not that long ago, anti-globalization campaigners in France saw McDonald's as a symbol of American big business and global injustice - and were wrecking their restaurants from time to time to prove the point. So in that context a campaign that presents the company as a broad church that welcomes one and all makes a lot of sense. So much so that in food-loving France, the chain enjoys growing popularity and has become, according to The Times newspaper, the country’s ‘worst-kept dirty secret’. Everyone loves McDonald's (at least that's what the company is telling us). Even gay people. Even closeted gay people. And even clueless Dads.

It might seem odd that the company has chosen to portray a young man who is cute and confident, but at home at least, firmly in the closet. Why not present an out and proud gay character? One answer could be that the company is looking to represent a realistic picture of gay identity, not just a handy stereotype of sugar-coated camp beloved of Hollywood. It's also worth remembering though that back in 2008, McDonald's got itself in a bit of hot water back home in the US over its purported support of the gay community. Following a $20,000 sponsorship donation and the appointment of a McDonald's VP to the board of the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC), the American Family Association (AFA) and other groups from the christian right called a boycott. The company had refused "to stay neutral in the cultural war over homosexuality" the AFA claimed, and was "promoting the homosexual agenda, including homosexual marriage."Eventually McDonald's duly pulled out of its support of the NGLCC.

 McDonald's American experience shows just how problematic it can be for companies to get involved in representing different minorities. It can place them in a world of identity politics that they are unprepared and ill suited to deal with. Promoting diversity or targeting the lucrative gay market may make good economic sense, but its also a political act with political implications. Pro- and anti- groups may both use corporations to help them achieve their political goals, just like the NGLCC and the AFA have. McDonald's may claim it is simply about diversity and inclusiveness but others see it as the frontline of identity politics.

So this may help to explain the somewhat ambiguous messaging of McDonald's"gay ad" in France. The company is putting out a welcome whether you're in or out of the closet, or even if, like the father in the ad, you don't recognise or support gay identity. Come as you are, as they put it in the campaign.

That said though, running the ad is quite a risk for a company still smarting from a controversial boycott that riled up a significant chunk of their core customer base in conservative middle America. As several commentators have suggested, the ad is unlikely to run in the US, but even so it's starting to cause waves, as this clip of Bill O'Relly shows. The company can hardly be pro gay in France and neutral in the US. At some stage, like it or not, the embracing of diversity means you just have to take some kind of political position. As much as companies like McDonald's may be more comfortable talking economics, they simply can't afford to ignore the politics.

Photo by Márcio Cabral de Moura. Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence

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