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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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.