Analysing some reactions to the McDonalds’s burger video

A quick look at some of the reactions to the McDonalds video. First, my hermano Kirk Hamilton posted about it at Kotaku and started an open-thread discussion about it. Some of the comments are telling:

 I’m a bit surprised that anybody was unaware of this. It’s not just McDonalds that does this, it’s everywhere.

Awareness with no translation into action (or even affect, i.e. disgust/disavowal) is typical of the internalisation of capitalist realism: a kind of self-awareness that fails to affect anything.

Why so surprised? as a Graphic Design graduate I learned product photography… Learn it yourself!

Same as above, really, adding only that the onus is on individuals to inform themselves. Atomisation to “issues” like this is typical of capitalist realism, and could possibly even be said to be constituting a new strata between class. The “educated”, and “aware” middle class knows this kind of manipulation goes on, but why bother telling anyone who won’t “Let it for themselves”? Next.

Is this actually all that surprising? It’s like the idea that a lot of people don’t know that McDonald’s food is gernally not healthy food. I’d wager that 99% of people know that both the advertising makes a burger look better than the one you’ll get and that it’s not healthy.

If they suddenly start saying their food is really healthy or made of nothing but vitamins and antioxidents, then I can see being upset. But until that day just eat it and enjoy it or don’t and don’t. Whatever.

The above comment is our first example of the “consumer power” deferral. “If you don’t like it, spend your money elsewhere.” I find this unsatisfying, personally. There was a post about why it’s also not a good idea as social activists to rely on the “let your money speak for you” arguments about combatting sexism, racism, etc. Think: symbolic boycotts that do (nearly) nothing that a business actually cares about. Next.

I am not shocked by this because there’s nothing to be shocked about. Like the lady said, it’s the same ingredients, they’re just photographed to look cool. This isn’t a big bad food corporation thing, all restaurants do this. You can hire food photographers to make you menu pics for your restaurant, and you really should, because like many other things, including people, food photographs not very well if you just point and shoot.

Also typical of many defences of this video I’ve seen, in that it involves the unspoken argument that because this is how it “is” therefore that is the way it “aught” to be. Which we know is a logical fallacy.

Huh. That makes far more sense than I imagined. I thought all their pictures were airbrushed. I guess not! Cool!

It’s still the same disgusting shit they make, just prepared in a LESS disgusting/fast way. Not really deceptive, it appears, as much as it is trying to inform the customer everything in their burger.

Here, the goal of “informing” customers is turned into a positive, rather than being the otherwise negative revealing of deception. The fact that the way it is prepared (i.e. the “fast” in fast food) constitutes the issue itself is unsurprisingly overlooked.
That’s probably enough to get a sense of the main kinds of responses we’re interested in. I should add though that quite a few of the Kotaku comments were quite encouraging – a few people seemed to understand that this (and any!) kind of manipulation is a kind of deception, even if they might not have picked up on the duplicitousness of the video’s “transparency” functioning as a heading-off-at-the-pass of any possible critique. Quite a few more commenters noted they’d “sworn off” McDonalds for one reason or other, so that’s nice I guess.
But beyond Kotaku, the reception of the McDonald’s video didn’t inspire a lot of hope. At the amusingly named ‘Bright Side of the News’ a blogger posted about the video, with the only real editorialising/commentary coming at the end, after the video:

Just for the record, the author of this story just had a burger for dinner, but he opted for one of custom creations over at The Counter in Del Mar, CA (San Diego). And in mere couple of hours, those calories will be burned by doing a 5 mile run around La Jolla (at least, he hopes so).

Again, this is an example of an appeal to “consumer power” and to vote with your dollars. Not really acceptable, for me.

At the Foodea blog, it’s presented in the typical internet “news” reporting stlye of “here is a thing”:

Isabel M from Toronto asked “Why does your food look different in the advertising than what is in the store?”

McDonald’s responded with an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of a McDonald’s Canada photo shoot comparing a store bought burger to the one’s used in their advertising campaigns.

I wonder how much the PR-ification of “news” is responsible for some of this process (could you imagine this kind of story being run in the 90s? No editor of a respectable publication would treat this in the same uncritical way).

Failblog mentions the video, and perhaps surprisingly actually does a better job – primarily because they add some editorial and don’t merely ‘present’ the video sans-commentary. The post title ‘My Quarter Pounder Never Fails to Not Live Up to My Expectations‘ at least leaves room for (primes the reader for?) the possibility of outrage, unlike the generic presentations above:

Here at Cheezburger, we know a good cheeseburger when we see one. Trust us. Unfortunately, fast food often fails to live up to the images of it we see on commercials. So, just how do they make heartburn with picksles look so darn wholesome? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not plastic… I think.

It’s hardly outraged (how hard it is to get mad at such honesty and transparency!) but it still seems to acknowledge that, yes, something is disquieting; we should be disturbed. The way this video is presented to readers seems to be really, really important so far. Kirk’s presentation of the video at Kotaku put it in a critical and sceptical context, as did the Failblog post. The comments on Failblog (despite being less) are almost unanimously of the “who cares” variety, however, so perhaps it’s not so important. Hmm.
The twitter account for Rio-based Digital Creative agency ‘Vulsai’ also presents the McDonalds video in the typical “Here is a thing” way. No commentary or critique or dissent (shock horror).

On twitter however, Cindy Gallop makes a really going point for me, saying about the video: “Here’s what you do in the age of transparency – all brands take note”. I think she’s completely and utterly right – this is the future of corporate “transparency” and it gives me nightmares. Gallop doesn’t seem to mind, though: as she is someone who has spoken at a TED conference I can’t say I am at all surprised. The TED class always sides with business over discrete individuals and our collective rights not to be subtly lied to, manipulated, and have our expectations toyed with. But hey, transparency! It’s open secret now! That’s better, right? Hardly.

Lastly, ‘Crisisblogger’ Gerald Baron writes about the piece, and it’s worth quoting at length:

Transparency is a good thing, right? But what if that transparency is about how you “doctor” photos to make your products look better than they really are?

The marketing manager of McDonald’s Canada did a noble thing in today’s world of transparency: she answered a social media question with a nice little video giving a straight ahead entirely credible honest answer.

It is perhaps the most perverse of the lot (though I totally understand why Baron thinks the video is a good thing – he’s the former head of “a moderately sized marketing and public relations firm”, and his blog is more interested in communications around “corporate crises”, rather than “crises of capital” or “ecological crisis resulting from industrialisation”) but it’s also the most revealing. Baron details a LinkedIn discussion about the video that went on between PR folks wondering whether this was going to backfire on McDonalds. And yet,
…to my surprise [and gratitude], I’m finding an awful lot of appreciation for the transparency shown by McDonalds and the presentation of the photo shoot by Bagozzi. Twitter comments surprisingly positive. And mashable’s story has 68 comments at this point with many of them expressing appreciation to McDonald’s for their honesty.
McDonalds should be very glad the Hope Bagozzi did the video and not someone sneaking into the photo shoot to do them damage. The story would be quite different.
Which is totally correct, and also totally baffling and horrifying. What it signals the a new phase in PR, involving the precorporation (think: pre-incorporation) and prediction as well as ultimately the subsumption of any kind of protest, exposure or criticism. McDonalds has beat the critics at their own game, via a strategic use of just enough ‘transparency’.
The conclusion that I am drawing from the whole episode is this: Food image manipulation in advertising is now beyond an open secret. It has moved into a new phase in which we’ve gone so far down the rabbit hole of public acquiesce and normalisation of being manipulated and virtually lied to that we no longer even care. “It’s the cost of doing business”. “Everyone’s doing it”.
In ‘Capitalist Realism’ Mark Fisher gives us the example of Gerald Ratner, whose jewellery company “made shit”, itself an open secret that everyone knew but which (crucially) no one “officially knew”. When Ratner became overconfident and described “the inexpensive jewelry his shops sold as “crap” in an after-dinner speech…the consequence of [him] making this judgement official were immediate, and serious – £500m was wiped off the value of the company and he lost his job.” (p.47)
If anything, I bet Ms Bragozzi ends up with a promotion.