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Unbelievable McDonald's Ad Admits Some See Working There as "Slave Labor"

McDonald's (MCD) has made perhaps the most radical corporate image video it's ever done to support new employee recruitment: it begins with a character describing work at the burger chain as "slave labor." The 8-minute ad counters virtually every criticism of the chain, from its contribution to the obesity crisis to its dead-end jobs to its low-quality food, with the emotional -- and highly manipulative -- tale of "Mel," who goes to work at McD's despite the disapproval of her mother and friends:

As a piece of advertising, it's fantastic. That it came from McDonald's -- a chain not best-known for its enthusiastic engagement with gritty reality -- is astonishing. Here's an excerpt from the opening scene:

Mum: All those years at school for this?

Mel: It's a good job!

Mum: It's McDonalds ... slave labor!

Mel: You should be pleased that I've got a job.

Mel goes on to work and be happy at McDonald's, even though she has to resist a constant barrage of disdain from her friends and family. At one point she is shown shaking her head to dismiss a tabloid headline that says "McDonald's Grilled Over Obesity" -- the next shot shows the chain's salads. At another she mollifies a borderline abusive customer who complains about being given "a burger that's barely warm."

The film, which appears to have emerged from the U.K., hardly polishes life at McDonald's at all: It really is about flipping burgers and squirting ketchup. (The patties are shown as they are -- flat and unappealing.) But just try resisting the heartfelt arc of Mel's story: She gets promoted while her friend grinds through the daily insults of being an office receptionist; she puts her relationship with her mother in jeopardy to hang on to her job.

McDonald's in the recession
There's a lot going on this video which isn't overtly stated. First, we know that Mel is educated but can't otherwise get a job. So this is about McDonald's role in the recession.

We also know that Mel is working class, because she takes the bus. Mel's friend, the receptionist, is hardly doing any better. Although Mel works at McDonald's for six months, she doesn't leave home and get her own place. (Pay isn't discussed in the video but jobs at McDonald's start at $7.41 an hour, so you can see why the video doesn't delve into that too deeply.)

Yet the film subverts all this into an act of early adulthood rebellion -- that accepting the honest toil of McDonald's is more noble than hanging on for the fancy job your college degree suggests you ought to have. Try not to choke up as the drama nears its end, a tearful reunion when Mel's mum finally accepts that McDonald's has, in fact, been a smart choice.

The film, "A Place to Shine," succeeds because it pushes so many different messages about McDonald's that you don't have time to think too deeply about any of them, and thus don't develop doubts about whether working at McDonald's really is the 24-hour laugh-fest that Mel experiences. And it does so with a realistic style that is mostly absent from McDonald's consumer work.

It may be the greatest McDonald's ad ever made. It's certainly the bravest.


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