McDonald’s is good for a lot of things, mainly cheap and fast food prepared the exact same way every time. What McDonald’s is less good at is providing high-quality food that comes from small farmers. That’s simply not their model, and would probably be impossible even if they wanted it to be. There aren’t enough potatoes at all the farmers markets in the country to feed our insatiable need for drive-through French fried spuds, 3.4 billion pounds a year.
But the McDonald’s marketing department has determined that some customers (or potential customers) want the company to have a connection to farmers and the land. They’re right: Interest in local food is surging. You might think that someone who is intent on eating local food would not be part of the McDonald’s target demographic. But then you meet Frank Martinez, potato farmer. In a new ad Martinez sits in front of an impossibly large pile of potatoes, cuts open some of his crop, and tastes it. "They’re good now, just wait till they’re McDonald’s fries."
A McDonald’s fry is almost certainly better than a raw potato. But that’s not really the point. McDonald’s, no doubt seeing the success of Chipotle—a company which touts its connection to small farmers and the quality of its often-organic ingredients, now wants us to believe that men like Frank Martinez are lovingly raising the potatoes that go into the fries. McDonald’s U.S. Chief Marketing Officer Neil Golden told Ad Age that "We thought putting a face on the quality of the food story would be a unique way to approach this. We acknowledge that there are questions about where our food comes from. I believe we’ve got an opportunity to accentuate that part of our story."
But where its food comes from is illustrated not by Frank Martinez but by the potato mountain in front of which he is perched. That gives some sense of the industrial scale that McDonald’s is actually working with. It’s not interested in small farmers because those farmers aren’t even on McDonald’s radar. In fact, McDonald’s doesn’t even buy direct from farmers, but from suppliers who contract with farmers. Frank Martinez doesn’t even work for them.
Even small moves by McDonald’s toward the values it’s espousing in this commercial could create sweeping change in our food system and the diet of Americans. But instead, they’re using the idea of making change to sell more bad food. It’s badvocacy at it’s finest: trumpeting a commitment to good food to sell bad food, instead of actually making their food better. It’s also the latest example of large companies attempting to put a human face on their faceless products. Think of Chevron’s widely derided "We Agree" ads, which had energy executives agreeing with people on the street about the need for renewables, or, more iconically, Juan Valdez, the fictionalized Colombian coffee farmer who reassured millions of Americans that their morning brew came straight from his fields to their cup.
This ad is just one part of a new campaign that is going to try to trump up McDonald’s quality food bona fides. This spot, plus a website and a series of other ads, are going to be launching in 2012. The other two ads will feature the farmers behind various McDonald’s ingredients. A lettuce farmer and a beef rancher will get similar treatment. Presumably the beef rancher will not bite into a raw steak and say "They’re good now, just wait till they’re McDonald’s burgers."