What have advertisers learned in the last few months?
The sight of Kendall Jenner proffering a can of Pepsi to a hostile cop will live in the annals of advertising infamy for some time.
And today McDonald’s discovered that childhood grief was an equally combustible concept when it comes to selling Filet-O-Fish.
After a storm of protest, the fast food behemoth withdrew an advertisement featuring a teenage boy trying to make sense of who his dead father was, and how he related to him, which features a revelatory and intended-as-heartwarming denouement set in—where else?—a McDonald’s.
The British advertisement, reported the Guardian, attracted 100 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority. The paper quoted grief experts, and those who had been bereaved as children, citing the advertisement as crass, manipulative, and insensitive.
A McDonald’s spokeswoman said: “We can confirm today that we have taken the decision to withdraw our ‘Dad’ TV advert. The advert will be removed from all media, including TV and cinema, completely and permanently this week.
“It was never our intention to cause any upset. We are particularly sorry that the advert may have disappointed those people who are most important to us: our customers.”
The advertisement may be everything its critics say, but—also as someone who experienced the death of one parent as a child—the condemnation and corporate response seemed a little outsized.
If advertisers use sex, body shape, desire, beauty, hunger, thirst, nature, the environment, fashion, and all manner of seductive imagery to sell us things, why shouldn’t they use grief?
Losing a parent is a horrible thing, and not to be trivialized, but to try and evoke a story around that to sell something seems much braver and more innovative than selling a deodorant with a sculpted pair of abs. The real question is, why do we insist on fencing grief and death off so much when it is so common to us all?
Watching the McDonald’s ad as I have twice, one might say it is ham-fisted, but hardly offensive. It is seems to be trying to say a number of very tricky things in its minute and a half.
It is not what it could have been: a tear-jerking, pull-on-every-heartstring simple tale of a child missing his father, his grief alleviated by a hamburger. It is much more complex. Not a masterpiece, no, but not dumb.
First, we see a teenage boy open a box of keepsakes in a bedroom. Inside there is a watch. Then a glasses case: he tries the glasses on. Downstairs his mother is ironing.
“Mum what was dad like?” the boy asks.
In a glance, the boy's mother knows now is the time that he feels ready to talk about the loss of his father: it feels as if a long time must have passed since the death of her partner, his father.
The boy does not remember his dad, and what the advertisement chooses to interrogate through a series of characteristics his mother describes is how different the boy feels he is to this man he never knew, but who is utterly central to his being. This dislocation naturally feels painful and confusing.
His mother tells her son of how “big, cuddly, and tall as a house” his dad was, his big hands. The boy is, as she says affectionately, a “littl’un.” He was “never scruffy, always smart, and his shoes were so shiny you could see your face in them.” Well, the boy—you guessed it—is none of those things, and wearing a pair of scuffed, dirty sneakers.
They approach a football pitch, where other kids are playing. His dad was good at the sport, the captain of a team, the mother says; we see that the boy can barely kick the ball.
They pass some girls, just as his mother is telling him his father was a “right catch, a wow with all the girls.” One of the girls rolls her eyes, uninterested, at the boy.
The boy’s eyes are blue; his dad’s was brown.
The differences—what separates him and his father—seem like a chasm, only making this deceased, absent central figure in his life that much more absent and separate.
But lo, here is a McDonald’s. Mother and son take their seats.
He has a Filet-O-Fish. That, his mother tells him, was his dad’s favorite, “with Tartar sauce all down his chi—“, she says, just as her son also sports a massive splodge of Tartar sauce on his own chin. So, the father-son connection is made, and it’s all down to McDonald’s. The boy is happy, and a warmly pensive look passes over his mother’s face.
What is insensitive about that? In a minute and a half McDonald’s crafted an admirably dense meditation on grief and loss. The objection seems to be that such a weighty subject is ill-suited to shabbily selling burgers and fish sandwiches. To its critics, to suggest that McDonald’s is the key salve to terrible grief seems facile.
But surely this more about how we see grief than how we see selling burgers. Grief is traditionally something compartmentalized, hidden away, not spoken about, a minefield of emotion for those going through it, and also, differently, for the loved ones around them. It is not spoken about. It is certainly rarely seen in advertisements, which are meant to make us feel good about something to buy it.
Yet this advertisement—ill-conceived as it might have been, and I am not sure that is so ill-conceived—seeks to bring grief out of the shadows. Complex sadness and loss is at its center, not the confected joy we are used to seeing in the commercials selling us food, furniture, and clothes.
The advertisement illustrates grief and loss’ effects on a teenage boy, and his mother. And it daringly goes further: it hearteningly, through her approach and her way of dealing with his questions, shows (like the brilliant horror movie, The Babadook) that grief need not be something that can subsume and destroy a family. Those left behind can learn to carry on, and at the same time find the most healthy way to remember whoever has died.
Grief is shown in this advertisement as something to talk about; a deceased person’s memory is bought alive again, and those memories are troubling—and this is realistic, emotionally true, and far from exploitative. In a minute and a half, those destabilizing memories are made safe with a simple message: that our loved ones, the trace of them and memory of them, can remain with us in the best kinds of ways.
The real objection here seems to be one of contrasts. It’s big human grief meets big, ugly McDonald’s. Loss meets fast food. Big human emotion alongside cheap thing being sold, that cheap thing of far less import than the suffering the boy is going through.
But McDonald’s should be applauded: its commercial is as useful public service announcement as any grief counseling organization could have wished for. It seeks to lift the mystery and taboo of grief, which affects children disproportionately—especially when they experience it around the death of a parent—more than the adults around them. Children feel isolated in so many ways by the death of a parent: not only has their mom or dad (or both) died, they are usually around friends and peers who have not yet gone through this experience yet.
The struggling to make sense of it all can be harmful and debilitating. Loss mixes with confusion—the kind of confusion the boy experiences in the McDonald’s advertisement—to make a child feel terribly alone and apart from the world, and those around him.
The other charge of exploitation that could reasonably be made is that that the storyline in the advertisement centers on the pain of the boy as he realizes he and his dad seemed so different; how does he resemble his dad?
But that, surely, is a genuine psychological conundrum if your father did die years before you could know him properly or fully. All you are left with, a little older as this boy is, are questions, among the most fundamental of which is: how do you take after this person you cannot remember but who bought you into the world? That is not exploitatively examined by McDonald’s: it is raised, meditated upon, and warmly resolved.
And yet the fast food giant has bowed to outrage and protest. That is sad. The advertisement may seem hokey. But grief in pop culture shouldn’t be saved for the histrionics of soap opera, or the stately and long narrative arcs of prestige prime-time drama. It shouldn’t just be for the sofas of daytime talk shows, or magazine profiles, or the theater and opera stage.
If we, as a culture, deem it perfectly acceptable to sell sex and desire to our teenagers, if we’re happy to relentlessly promulgate the need for the perfect body, if we sell food and drink in excess, if we allow childhood, men being idiots, and sappy love to be sentimentalized--if we deem all of those images and well-worn tropes healthy enough for children and adults to see, then why shouldn’t McDonald’s examine what grief means in order to sell a Filet-O-Fish?
The problem is our attitude to death and grief, and what we deem acceptable when it comes to the expression of experiencing both—in our lives and in the culture around us. In shutting down McDonald’s latest advertising campaign, all that has been cemented once again is the taboo around grief and death which this advertisement, in its own small and intriguing way, set out to challenge.