BIG MAC TAKES A NEW BREAK WITH A FAMILIAR MCD'S TWIST

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Before taking a look at the new McDonald's theme-which, of course, is yet another celebration of homogenized, processed, palatable Americana-let's re-examine what McDonald's is, and what it is not.

It is a fast-food joint, but it is not merely a fast-food joint. It serves more food than any company in the world, but it doesn't sell much of what is in anybody's best interest to eat. It gives as much thought as any entity in the history of commerce about what its customers want, but is institutionally incapable of promoting the dietary wisdom its customers need.

It is a great corporation, and in many ways a great corporate citizen, that arguably has victimized billions and billions of those it has served, because Big Macs and fries are tempting and delicious cardiovascular timebombs. So is McDonald's therefore some sort of menace, a malevolent force, a Golden Arch-villain?

Nah.

It is a company that cooks a lot of junk that nearly everybody loves to eat, and serves it up hot, in clean and well lit surroundings. Cheap. And along the way it transcended mere fast-foodness, joining the Bill of Rights, the interstate highway system and MTV in that ultimate special-combo deal called the American Way of Life.

That's why the previous theme, "What you want is what you get," was nothing if not accurate. Notwithstanding a decade's worth of expanding understanding and concern about the effects of the double cheeseburger in the bloodstream, we still crave the stuff. The marketing question is, how to make us feel less guilty about it?

For the answer, Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, has harkened back to a safer, simpler time-before Silence=Death and Quarter-pounder=Bypass-when McDon-ald's discovered the key for transcendence into cultural iconography. The year was 1970, the agency was Needham, Harper & Steers, and the theme was "You deserve a break today." It was a master stroke, positioning a McDonald's meal not as a fast-food burger but as an entitlement, a tasty, tempting perquisite of the middle class.

Now, a quarter-century later, comes "Have you had your break today?" But the 1995 version isn't just permission to forsake the effort and monotony of home cooking; it is a waiver of dietary correctness.

Take your break. Clog your arteries. Go crazy. Or, as the jingle puts it, "Feed me, tease me, tempt me, please me."

Except for that lyric-which sounds more like a Times Square movie marquee than a hamburger pitch-the introductory 60-second spot is precisely what you'd expect: a SweetCam montage of McDonald's Americana, in all its sweet, sanitized simplicity. Little girls running down a country lane, a dad serving ice cream to his daughter and a group of black men tap dancing(!) in such a happy-go-lucky way we don't even want to contemplate the subtext.

On the whole, it's a change you could see coming. Three months ago, the AdReview staff scribbled down what we thought would be the next McDonald's slogan, and we borrowed not one but two retired Needham themes to come up with "You deserve a taste of McDonald's."

We can now dispose of our Post-it note, knowing that either a) great minds think alike, or b) we have been at this ad criticism thing wayyyy too long.

Ad Age Bulletin Board on Prodigy, or by Prodigy e-mail at EFPB35A.

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