Last Updated Aug 20, 2010 3:46 PM EDT
How McDonald's managed to fumble this ball is a mystery -- the idea of Asterix in a McDonald's ad is to the French what seeing Herman Melville's Ishmael eating a QuarterPound Whaleburger would be in the U.S. -- unthinkable and ridiculous at the same time. Nevertheless, it underlines how easy it is to offend an entire country with your marketing if you're not paying attention. McDonald's has no excuse: It knows it's a global cultural touchstone. Just look at what happened when it ran a single gay-themed ad, also in France.
Asterix's failure to conquer the U.S. market is one of the great mysteries of American pop culture, so if you live in the U.S. and you've never heard of him, don't worry. Worldwide, however, the leader of the French resistance to the Roman Empire, circa 50 B.C., has sold more than 325 million books, most of them outside France.
Each Asterix adventure starts the same way, during the height of the Roman Empire's occupation of ancient France (or Gaul, as it was known):
All of Gaul is occupied by the Romans. All? No! A village of unconquerable Gauls forever resists the invader.The Village, led by Asterix, his stupid friend Obelix, his dog Dogmatix, and a range of other characters with Latin-punning names, then engage the Romans (or the Vikings, or the British, or the Native Americans) in a complicated plot that eventually requires Asterix to drink a secret potion that gives him superhuman strength. Then Asterix beats everyone up, and his village celebrates by feasting on a roast boar.
Along the way, there's plenty of slapstick humor for kids and a bunch of subtle political jokes, often in faux-Latin, for their parents, which is why anyone who grows up reading Asterix -- i.e. all of France -- holds him close to heart.
Worse for McDonald's, Asterix is easily slotted into a narrative of resistance to imperialism, cultural or otherwise. JosÃ© BovÃ©, the French farmer who famously destroyed a McDonald's in a 1999 protest, has a real-life moustache that is identical to Asterix's.
In the U.S., the French may well be regarded as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" but the French regard themselves as the inheritors of a series of revolutions, starting with the French Revolution and the birth of European democracy in 1789, continuing through the underground resistance to the Nazis during World War II, and culminating in the Paris uprising in 1968.
Asterix is essentially a cartoon that suggests that all the French want to do is be left alone to drink wine and eat roast boar, and they'll fight anyone who gets in their way.
Somehow, McDonald's -- universally regarded as a threat to French gastronomic heritage, even though the French eat there all the time -- and ad agency Euro RSCG believed they could get away with appropriating Asterix for themselves. Here's how lame Asterix's publisher's defense of the move is:
Taken aback by the outcry, Albert RenÃ©, the publishers who own the image rights to the comic, denied they had sold out. "Asterix remains a rebel," a spokesman told TF1 News on Wednesday. "He doesn't work for (McDonald's) but with (McDonald's). The Gauls 'come as they are', as the slogan says. We are not defenders of 'malbouffe' (bad food)".Uh huh. When your own licensing partners can't mount a robust defense of your ads, you know you're in trouble. Here's a vandalized version of the ad, which I'll leave you to translate on your own:
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