A member of the Code Switch team — who shall remain nameless, but whose name rhymes with Tatt Mhompson — was recently winding his way through the recesses of Amazon when he stumbled across an ad for McDonald's that appeared in Ebony back in 1972. (Don't trouble yourself trying to figure out just what Ma ... er, Tatt was searching for to come to this result. Your head will hurt.)
Here's what that ad looked like.
McDonald's has long marketed to consumers of color as aggressively as any big corporation. It was one of the first corporate customers of Burrell Communications, the longstanding, highly decorated multicultural advertising agency. While we take for granted that there are lots of people of color in mainstream commercials, the world was much different in those awkward early days of culturally targeted marketing. But a journey through this history offers a (hilarious) reminder of what has and has not changed in the art of selling burgers to brown people.
What we found when we started digging through the archives was that McDonald's was deeply concerned with black folks getting down. (Excuse us: gettin' down.)
Again, with the down-gettin':
Corny, sure. But none of those spots was as hilariously egregious as this '70s-era print spot from the Golden Arches.
Wow. Just. Wow.
This stuff would never make it off the drawing board today, but back then, it probably looked downright forward-thinking.
When McDonald's wasn't concerned about black folks getting down — sorry, gettin' down — it was deeply concerned about black people getting jobs. There was a whole category of McDonald's ad that trumpeted the idea of the fast-food chain as an engine for black and economic advancement. This one, with its uncamouflaged appeal to solidarity, is my favorite ad that we came across.
You see that ring? We need to know if there were ever black folks walking around Springfield flashing Golden Arches bling, and whether McDonald's also gifted them the long, chocolate-brown leather duster coat that would be necessary to make that ring even make sense. Thanks in advance.
But at the nexus of these two ideas — McDonald's insistence that it's keeping it 100 and its positioning itself as dogged proponents of black enterprise — lay Calvin, the ostensibly cool, hard-working teenager who, for folks of a certain age and social location (ahem), became synonymous with the company. Watch as Calvin navigates the raucous Brooklyn streets, dismissing ne'er-do-wells on the block and helping an old lady with her groceries, as he heads to the place that is strongly implied to be the wellspring of his confidence and self-respect: his part-time gig at McDonald's.
This commercial remains amazing. From the creepy, omniscient gossips who are narrating this dude's life to the New jack swing-ish music, those bright-ass shirts with the horizontal stripes and the Different World-era preachiness, this spot might just be the apotheosis of 1990. Like that magazine ad with the McDonald's jewelry, the Calvin spot doesn't even pretend to be about food. McDonald's: Get off those streets and get you a damn job!
But Calvin's story didn't end there. He got an entire narrative arc that included a promotion and expansion of his social influence.
(Reason this is awesome: This commercial was filled with dudes who were That Guy From That Thing in a bunch of '90s-era sitcoms. Not-Quite-Cockroaches, if you will.)
And while you'd think working at a place that employed more black kids than any other corporation would make Calvin's employment unremarkable, it still managed to become the hottest gossip in Calvin's neighborhood. You heard Calvin got a promotion?!?!?!
(Dave Chappelle tried to imagine what became of Calvin in this hilarious but definitely not-safe-for-work clip from his old Comedy Central show.)
If you wanted to overthink things (which we're always down with, of course), you could probably credibly map the arc of mainstream media representations of black folks over the past 50 years via McDonald's spots. And because culture is a dynamic thing, a spot-on appeal in 1975 might look hopelessly misguided in 1990.
Still, sometimes there's no point in trying to reinvent the wheel.
In the 40 years between "Quality is makin' it ... " and "I'm lovin' it," black America has made substantial political and economic progress — that second dude even has two patties. But we still haven't reached the promised land of g's at the end of our gerunds.