All the cool kids go to McDonalds, according to McDonalds

The ADgenda: nobody tapes their face to dogs.

Since 2008, McDonald's UK has been working on an image overhaul with advertising leaders Leo Burnett, a company whose slogan is, “We don't make brands famous, we make them popular”. The ad agency had a difficult job on its hands; poor old McDonald's had a rough ride with PR in the noughties; first it was linked with political corruption, then SuperSize Me showed a man's body slowly decomposing on a diet of Maccy D's, and all the time those environmentalists kept harping on about that darned rainforest. Leo Burnett's first job was to run a set of ads to show that, contrary to popular belief, McDonalds's is actually one of the UK's leading health and organic food retailers (come on guys, they sell apples).

This health campaign, combined with the crowd-sourced "We All Make The Games" campaign, have acted together to (according to the Leo Burnett website) "double trust" in the brand. But, not content with this, in the past twelve months the Burnett ad team have gone further, launching a raft of adverts aimed to make Maccer's the restaurant de choix for the hip, young professional. Part of this, involves the promotion of McDonald's “freshly ground coffee” range.

"Coffee and Conversation”, which first aired last year, shows us a series of vignettes that demonstrate the kinds of every-day conversations people have round a cup of java à la McDo. For example, the ad begins with a disgruntled thirty-something telling her friend “and then he taped his face to the dog”, ; “I hear ya sister'', the viewer will think, “if I had a penny for every time my Pete taped his face to the dog...”. Another scene shows a sassy London gal with her mates trying desperately to de-code her boyfriend's mindbogglingly cryptic text -"C u l8a". “What does that mean?!”, she cries, her mates are hysterically excited about the whole thing, but also unable to elucidate the mystery.

Indeed, so at home is the young professional in Mcdonald's, that one trendy young man chooses it as the place to start his relationship, and an attractive young blonde, deems it an appropriate place to end hers; we zoom in on a drop of coffee creeping down her cup, as she splutters, “I just feel differently about you now”. The drop of Maccers coffee, in a very contained kind of pathetic fallacy, – I think – is meant to represent the anguish of the young blonde. In an even sadder scene, a dead-eyed thirty-something in a suit tells his indifferent colleagues “I talked about staplers for an hour today”.

Leo Burnett reaches out to the young professional again in 'First Day', an ad in which a young man starts a new job in a funky modern glass building. His new boss bombards him with information and acronyms, she even follows him into the men's toilets to tell him he's drying his hands wrong. Overwhelmed, he hobbles over to McDonalds's on his lunch break, as he orders a Big Mac the world is put to rights; he proceeds to flirt with his burger, before turning his attentions to the colleague he's made sexy eyes with earlier, who also lunches under the Golden Arches. Romance is not dead.

The ad, "He's Happy", again, pushes McDonalds's as a place of sanctuary for the hot young boy- about- town. A plucky twenty-something leaves his city flat and sings a chirpy rendition of 'The street where you live' from My Fair Lady; he smiles at passers-by and winks at foxy florists as he goes. At the end of the ad it is revealed that the cause of his light mood and public singing is not a lovely lady, but a double big mac.

Now, It is not that these situations are so very implausible, romances may have started in McDonald's, people probably do have depressing conversations about their work in the restaurant, and many people on their first day at a new job might choose to eat at McDonalds's, for its grim familiarity if nothing else. But the McDonalds's in question would not be the soft-lit, soft-focus, everyone is under 35 and gorgeous one, created by Burnett's team; in real McDonalds's, the lights are too bright, there is invariably at least one screaming child in the vicinity, and olfactory perception (conveniently absent in a TV ad) is filled with the smell of chip fat mixed with disinfectant. That is the reality; getting dumped in McDonalds's would be hideously depressing, having lunch there every day would give you permanent afternoon indigestion.

Oh, and take note Burnett; nobody tapes their face to dogs.

McDonald's UK has been working on an image overhaul. Photograph: Getty Images
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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt