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Branding is more fundamental to the US psyche than the Bible

Will Self's "Real Meals" column.

As we drove down the broad stretch of Highway 9, which, under its guise as State Street, forms the main thoroughfare of Hurricane, Utah, my 14-year-old confided that he found the girl on the illuminated Wendy’s sign “disturbing”. I can see his point: with her ketchup-red hair and pigtails akimbo; with the upstanding and presumably savagely starched piecrust collar of her shirtwaist; with her stylised freckles and unbelievably joyful smile, the Wendy’s girl (who, one can only assume, is the eponymous “Wendy”) has the same sinister aura of other humans-gone-logo. Still, she’d probably give that creepy Colonel Sanders a thrashing while beating up on that Chucky-doll-lookalike, Ronald McDonald, with a handy rolling pin.

Demon eyes

The fast-food logo that’s stayed with me most powerfully from the time I spent living in the States as a child is Orange Julius. Originally a fruit-juice stand flogging sugary OJ – hence the moniker – the chain had branched out into burgers and hotdogs under the winking sign of a little pitchfork-wielding demon by the time we were cruising the streets of Ithaca, NY, in the mid-1960s. You might’ve imagined that the marketing of fast food under such a diabolic presence had eventually fallen foul of the religious lobby, but what put paid to it (or him) was a suit by the alumni of Arizona State University, from whose own logo Orange Julius had been freely adapted; thus proving yet again that branding (and associated litigation) is far more fundamental to the American psyche than even the Bible.

Anyway, I never remember being scared of the Orange Julius devil – yet even now, sitting many thousands of miles away, the very thought of Wendy baring her teeth in the desert sunset is enough to bring me out in a cold sweat. Mind you, this could be a somatic memory, because the air-conditioning in the joint was savage. “Quality Is Our Recipe”, that’s the Wendy’s shtick, a perfect little piece of nonsense in its own right. But then once you’re out in the American boondocks, you begin to suspend disbelief in these sorts of things – just as it seems entirely acceptable to bumble along the interstates in an SUV the size of a semi-detached house. Our hire car seemed grotesquely huge to me, until I pulled in to Wendy’s and parked it beside one whose wheel arches arced above it like the flying buttresses of Chartres Cathedral. Inside there was the full-strength mortuary light, tiled dissection areas and melamine gurneys; the troughs full of real plants genetically engineered to resemble plastic ones. In the queue, pimply teens fresh from football practice sported those flesh-coloured and obscenely padded calf-length pants, while jiggling with the effects of a lifelong corn syrup comedown.

My teenager suppressed his fear long enough to order a “Baconator” (“Two ¼lb patties topped with fresh-cooked Applewood Smoked Bacon in between a premium buttered, toast-ed bun. Topped off with mayo, ketchup, and American cheese. Now that’s not just a sandwich, but a tasty treat”). I perused the info boards above the servery. There were scary salads and berry tea infusions – if I didn’t know better I might’ve thought I’d stumbled into a health-food joint.

Hail Caesar

But then this has been the way of it with the big fast-food chains: their response to accusations of super-sizing their customers while etiolating their workers has been not either/or but both/and. Wendy’s is no exception, with plenty of signage about corporate responsibility and donation boxes for worthy causes.

I had the spicy chicken Caesar salad, my wife a cheeseburger. For some dumb reason I also got us two cryogenic storage dewars full of tea the temperature of liquid nitrogen – and when I closed in on the table they top-heavily toppled out of the slots in the cardboard carrier and inundated my wife’s vintage Prada handbag. I’d already scored a perfect zero two days before when I put the open sunblock bottle in a shoulder bag with her vintage Prada bag. Now the handbag was definitively fucked – only Laura Ingalls Wilder’s blind elder sister Mary would still have deemed it stylish.

Inevitably the rest of the meal passed off with a certain froideur. I tried making a few jolly remarks about the square-cut beef patties Wendy’s use in their hamburgers (“We don’t cut corners!”), but these fell as flat as . . . well, as a square-cut patty. The food was the usual dreck but the staff were sweetness itself when it came to mopping up this perfect tea storm in the desert town of Hurricane.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special