PERSPECTIVE: Global advertising alone can't rescue McDonald's

The McDonald's ad by the DDB German shop that developed the "I'm lovin' it" theme, is as anodyne an example of globalese as you will ever find. You can just imagine the thinking: rather than fritter away the world advertising budget on dozens of ads in dozens of languages, how much more impactful it could be to concentrate everything behind one meaningless throwaway phrase ... sorry, giant promotional thrust.

To be fair, the constraints on both agency and client are numerous. Words of more than two syllables must be avoided. No puns or any word play that might puzzle a McDonald's eater from Mumbai to Manhattan. No testimonials from local celebrities (Hollywood stars, like Justin Timberlake, are acceptable). Nothing that might upset minority groups. No old people unless they are very picturesque (we have a sweet black pensioner dancing in this one, which is fine). Nothing that demands a sense of humour to be appreciated. Nothing too subtle. Nothing too challenging. Blimey.

Some would argue that, given these criteria, the agency has created a masterpiece. It has managed to shoehorn a list of requirements as long as your arm into a commercial that at least looks pretty. The problem is that it could just as easily be re-cut to promote biscuits, soft drinks, mobile phones, trainers or whatever.

And that's the eternal issue with globalese. Why, 20 years after Theodore Levitt predicted a future of "global markets for globally standardised products", is "I'm lovin it'" the best that one of the world's finest agency networks can come up with? Why, when statistical analysis on whatever aspect of consumer behaviour we wish to understand can be produced instantly, is the end result so bland?

The answer is that McDonald's faces issues bigger than marketing or advertising can address. It may have put salads on its menu as part of a global makeover, but it risks becoming increasingly irrelevant. Today, companies such as Starbucks with their cosy sofas and mock-healthy menus rule. And if the threat of obesity does not deter consumers from McDonald's, then its clinical restaurants with their tables reassuringly bolted to the floor will.

At this point, we should look behind the campaign to find the man in charge of the budget. Step forward ... the executive vice-president and global chief marketing officer of the McDonald's Corporation since September 2002, Mr Larry Light.

The Canadian-born Light, as older readers will recall, made serious money from the sale in 1986 of Ted Bates Worldwide to the Saatchi brothers for $507 million. He was one of many Bates executives who benefited from what was then the highest sum ever paid for an advertising agency. (Bob Jacoby, the chairman, personally made $100 million before Light and fellow Bates executives jointly engineered his demotion, but that's another story.)

With an assurance born of a healthy bank balance and a nigh on 40-year career spanning agencies, academia, consulting, lobbying, you name it, Light must have seemed like a saviour to the beleaguered McDonald's Corporation.

Famously opinionated, he's legendary for his emotional rallying cries at company meetings. Typical Light statement, delivered in choked-up voice: "McDonald's is a brand that is, in the words of Bob Dylan, forever young."

Memorable global ad campaigns such as Apple's "Think different" or Nike's "Just do it" were based on highest common denominator concepts, which led to business success.

"I'm lovin' it," however you dress it up, is not in that league.

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