McDonald's Can Afford To Be Silly

Last Updated Jul 24, 2009 3:17 PM EDT

We are a nation of unnecessary lists. Rolling Stone magazine has its ridiculous 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. People has its Sexiest Men Alive. Fortune tells us the best places to work, though number 14 on its 2006 list, HomeBanc Mortgage, filed for bankruptcy the following year.
Now McDonald's has joined the fray, releasing one of the most ambiguous "best of" lists out there, "The Happiest Cities for Families in America." The list's scientific results are based on "the number of social activities, recreational resources and household expenditures on fun activities."
The city winning the top honor, in a promotion vaguely connected to the 30th Anniversary of the Happy Meal, is Minneapolis, followed by Atlanta; Virginia Beach, Va.; Washington, D.C.; Portland, Ore.; Denver; Baltimore; Seattle; Kansas City, Mo.; and Austin, Texas. McDonald's survey was conducted by Sperling's BestPlaces, a firm that has brought us such important lists as "America's Manliest Cities," "Best Airports to Make a Connection," and "Romantic Places for Baby Boomers."
One columnist, James Lileks of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, finds the top honor bestowed on his city amusing: "Perhaps people from big miserable, congested cities visit Lake Harriet, note the absence of gunfire and conclude they're in Valhalla."

Neither McDonald's nor Sperling said much about how these happy cities were decided, so we're all left guessing at the criteria. Could Minneapolis sell more Happy Meals per capita than any other city?

But maybe a better question is: Why would McDonald's even get into the business of rating cities? Franchise owners from Boston to Miami to Los Angeles are probably irked that their great cities were left off of the list. Could we see a restaurant operator in Phoenix stage a protest by not paying franchising fees?

As silly as this whole promotion is -- even given that it follows McDonald's recent cheesy advertising campaign -- McD's is unlikely to see much backlash. Bad marketing taste doesn't change the fact that this company sure knows how to make money during a recession.