This paper analyzes the rhetorical features of one particular video advertisement (2010 see Reference list for details) that was issued on the internet by the multinational burger company McDonalds. It now circulates on the internet with and without the English subtitles. The subtitled text of the advert is a very brief nine lines long, followed by the single tag line “Come as You are” and the full text is given below at Appendix 1. Hill and Helmers (2008, pp. 51-53) describe how a video uses a particular type of persuasion called “visual argument” which is rhetorical rather than logical or dialectical.
The medium is very compressed and this does not allow full exposition of claim, argument, rebuttal, etc but on the other hand the visual aspect lends a sense of immediacy which written text does not have. They warn, however, that the apparent advantage of seeing rather than reading is partly illusory, since the images presented are highly structured and filtered so as to present a particular viewpoint. In their terminology the McDonalds advert would fall into the category of “didactic narrative”.
The target market for McDonalds products is generally young families and teenagers. The opening shots set a scene which is familiar to this group: a busy and noisy McDonalds restaurant with many smiling faces. A father waits to be served while a son sits at a formica table and talks on his mobile telephone while looking at a photograph. Across the world, in France as well as in other countries, this is a regular occurrence and will resonate with both older and younger viewers who see themselves in the father or son role.
The dresscode in the video is casual and “cool” as evidenced by the beanie hat worn by a customer, and the hoodie worn by the boy who talks. This is typical of styles popular with young urban males. At first it looks like a mainstream father and son, where the son talks to someone romantically on his cellphone. The person on the other end of the telephone is neither seen nor heard and one just assumes out of habit that this person is female. Lines 1-4 are spoken by the boy. The father arrives and lines 5-9 are spoken by the father.
As the father quizzes the boy and makes a comparison with himself, the facial expression of the boy makes it clear that the father is not aware of a crucial difference between them: the boy is gay. The Tag line which is presented on a plain screen at the end just before the McDonalds logo “Come as you are” tacitly acknowledges that people are different, and extends a welcome to all kinds of people. It does not matter whether they are older or younger, gay or straight, they should still come to McDonalds and eat together.
The claim, or main issue which the video presents is that diversity is a good thing, and people should be welcome regardless of their sexual orientation. There is no explicit verbal argument to back this up, but the story presents the gay son in a favourable light. This is done by camera angles that focus on his face, and the choice of an attractive young French male actor dressed in pretty average teenage clothes. This is by no means extreme gay activism with stereotypical gay wardrobe, mannerisms and speaking style but a subtle depiction of a situation that a pretty average young gay man is likely to encounter.
It all looks and is intended to look “normal”. The video is youth-focused, because it lets the audience see things from the boy’s perspective, while making it obvious that the father does not appreciate the insider information which audience and boy share. The father represents the traditional French male role model of an experienced older man who is successful with women. The son represents a more up to date role model of a gay French man. An interesting aspect of the video is that there are a number of appeals going on at the same time in different directions.
On the one hand there is a main message conveyed by pathos, which shows the young boy’s romantic feelings towards his boyfriend, and his wry acceptance of his father’s old fashioned and rather macho attitudes. On the other hand there is some authority and believability in the role of the father who pays for the meal and takes a positive and fatherly interest in his son. The son is inward looking and reflective, using the personal pronoun “I” to reveal his feelings, while the father uses the pronoun “you” more often and directs his feelings outwards.
The father cites the evidence of his own experience to offer an example for the boy to follow in his footsteps. McDonalds will be well aware that parents and teenage children, and the sometimes complex and difficult relationship between them is absolutely the territory in which they operate their business. They provide a framework, something like a neutral territory, in which this generational conflict can be worked through, via the activity of buying and eating fast food. In making the gay-friendly message implicit, rather than explicit, McDonalds avoids the possible outcome of presenting a crass or sensationalist message.
The way gaps in the narrative are left for the viewer to supply is also very clever, because it flatters the audience and forces them to get involved in constructing the meaning of the advertisement. Ambiguity used in this way is a very powerful rhetorical technique. There is still, of course, the possibility that some viewers will react negatively to the overturning of the traditionally dominant heterosexual point of view. Some viewers will resist the gay-friendly message that is being constructed but this, too, is part of the writer’s intention.
Advertisers often court controversy as a means to extend the impact of their message and this is a prime example of that. If some viewers react with an indignant and anti-gay blog post or a you tube video or text response then this in turn provokes pro-gay and pro-McDonald posts from the viewers. The message is then guaranteed durability and a wider circulation. In purely technical production terms this video is a model of economy and precision. There are only two speakers, and each takes only one conversation turn.
The product is never mentioned, and the instant recognizability factor with this brand makes this irrelevant in any case. Just in case there is any doubt in the viewer’s mind, however, the logo is added at the end. The colors are muted, and the mood is a gentle family intimacy with some tension caused by the unspoken facts which change the surface meaning of the discourse. Deep meaning is conveyed in shots of the changing expressions on the son’s face, and these meanings are obliquely referred to in the tag line “Come as you are”.
This phrase is used in standard English to mean something like “don’t dress up specially – there is no need to be formal” and the McDonalds ad suggests an extension of this to mean something like “you don’t need to pretend you are straight, just be yourself” for a young and gay friendly audience, or “you don’t need to worry if your son is gay, just come and eat with him as normal” for an older audience who may be less open towards a gay message. The advert makes a plea for tolerance, not for any particular orientation.
All of the components of the advert, even including the brief snippet of song saying “I’m going on my way” at the end, support these same messages and the images work, because they rest on a long McDonalds formula of adverts showing intimate conversations in busy restaurant scenes, but incorporate this new “diversity” based angle in a positive, friendly and contemporary way. Appendix 1. 1. Boy: Hello? 2. Boy: I was thinking about you too. 3. Boy: I miss you too. 4. Boy: My dad’s coming, I have to hang up. 5. Father: Is this your class picture? 6. Father: You look just like me at your age/ 7.
Father: Let me tell you I was quite the ladies’ man! 8. Father: Too bad your class is all boys… 9. Father: You could get all the girls. (Song in the background) 10. Tag line replaces the pictures : Come as you are. Hill, Charles A. and Helmers, Marguerite (2008) Defining Visual Rhetorics. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Lunsford, Andrea A. , Ruskiewicz, John J. , Walters, Keith. (2009) Everything’s an Argument. Boston: Bedford books. McDonald’s video advert “Come as You Are”, (2010) in French with English subtitles. Available online at: http://www. youtube. com/watch? v=xk8xyONKK_4&feature=related
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