For the first time ever, the fast food version of Siva the Destroyer, AKA McDonald’s, is going after senior citizens—and I don’t mean newly AARPed 50-year-olds, but those in their late 70s and early 80s.
I saw this commercial for the first time during one of the many breaks during the last two minutes of an NCAA tournament game this past weekend.
The commercial unfolds as a series of vignettes, with quick fade-outs and fade-ins to tell us that it’s another day of the week. In each vignette, the same two elderly gentlemen—one bald–stare at what a former employee of mine once called a “senior babe,” an extremely attractive woman in her late 60s or early 70s. They make juvenile comments about how the bald one wants to go over and try to meet her. As far as attracting the attention of unknown members of the opposite sex goes, these guys don’t seem as if they’re out of practice, but rather as if they never really were in practice.
In every vignette, the would-be lover, his intended and the friend are drinking coffee or a special McDonald’s coffee drink—you know, sweetened coffee topped with a pyramid of white whipped froth consisting of corn syrup and dairy products, topped by a few rivulets of a thicker, less airy corn syrup tinted with food coloring and a roux of natural and artificial flavorings. They’re called McCafé drinks.
In the last vignette the potential suitor arrives at the table wearing an awful fitting toupee which transforms him into a pathetic clown. Meanwhile a bearded man, looking slightly younger and spryer than the toupéed jester, approaches the senior babe. Brandishing his McCafé drink as a peacock shows his tail, he asks if he can sit at her table. Her eyes light up and they begin an animated conversation. We cut back to the two oldest adolescent males in the jungle. The friend says the would-be lothario should have put the wig on his chin instead of his head. Before the McDonald’s music and logo, the scorned lover mugs pathetically with the toupee in a way that made me feel embarrassed for and angry at the guy at the same time.
What do we learn from this commercial?
We learn that senior centers, libraries, venues for volunteer activities, dances, houses of worship and family gatherings are not the best places to meet women when you are of a certain age. Instead, you have to hang at Mickey D’s on a regular basis. Of course, that’s a completely false impression. True enough, there must be groups of seniors who use McDonald’s to meet and schmooze once a week, or maybe every day. But what happens in this commercial is slightly different. It’s hanging at Mickey D’s to hook up. And what I’m saying is that the scene rings more false than cute because there are so many better places for seniors to meet and match nowadays.
We also learn in this commercial that the relationship marketplace for straight men in their 70s and 80s is pretty grim. In a turnaround of Jan and Dean’s “Surf City” (to which these characters would have probably danced decades ago), it’s three boys for every girl. Of course, that’s false, too. Death and illness give men the numbers advantage when it comes to late-in-life love. The older the age group, the more eligible women there are per eligible man. Neither Target nor Wal-Mart would ever commit such a demographic sin in one of their commercials. When they depict a demographic group in an ad, everything is right in every detail.
Target and Wal-Mart would also never make mean fun of its customers, although they both will “make fun with” their customers, as McDonald’s has also done through the years. “Making fun with” includes such scenes as the wife letting the husband think he’s making the buying decision; the couple arguing about what to do with the savings they have from buying something; the kids trying to use smart phone technology to trick dad into buying more treats. These are gentle teases which affirm the attractiveness of the target audiences. But depicting an octogenarian as an infantilized Pagliacci is inherently insulting to the characters and by implication to the demographic they represent, which is why the scene seems more uncomfortable than cute, despite the peppy McDonald’s “ba-da-da-da-da” playing brightly in the background.
The irony is that whoever worked on this spot started with the right ideas. McDonald’s strategy to go after senior citizens is a good one, since the original denizens of Big Macs are baby boomers now retiring and aging.
To connect the consumption of a product with an emotion is a staple strategy of advertising, one that McDonald’s has pursued with a vengeance for decades, especially in spots featuring African-Americans and young adults. And as we have seen in many McDonald’s spots through the years, what better emotion can there be than romantic attraction? Moreover, one unifying theme shared by all McDonald’s spots for specialty coffee drinks over the past few years is an attitude best described as hip cuteness, and what could be cuter and hipper at the same time than seniors in love?
On paper, the spot has it all: It connects a product to an emotion, focuses on a target market that is of growing importance, and has thematic and design similarities with other McDonald’s spots that will help enhance the overall brand message that the company tries to make in all of its advertising.
Somewhere along the way, though, these strategies led to the uncomfortable and unrealistic mess we see in the commercial. Because it presents a reality that doesn’t exist and one in which the representative of the target market is humiliated, I’m certain that the commercial will fail with that target market.
But I’m betting it plays well with the enormous youth market for coffee drinks, i.e., the young and slightly unsophisticated who will accept the McCafé drink as a cheaper substitute for a beverage from a real coffee house or that corporate imitation known as Starbucks. The humor is a highly sanitized version of the crude and somewhat humiliating humor of a lot of youth movies. Young men and women can relate to the awkward dilemma of a boy wanting to pick up a girl in a fast food restaurant but being afraid to ask.
And there can be no doubt about it. That’s not Viagra or water from the mythic fountain of youth that the bearded elderly gentleman has in his hand that makes him so attractive to the senior babe. It’s a McCafé! The elixir of love.