Big Mac cuts McNice Guy act

Using all its corporate muscle to stomp on a sandwich bar owner is not good for McDonald’s public image

Let us this week cast our minds back to events of almost 600 years ago, to a brief, heady tumult from whose depths there rose a heart-stirring cry that rings down the centuries all the way to a Big Mac, fries and shake.

In 1450, Jack Cade, an Irishman by birth and a physician by training, marched on London with 40,000 followers and proclaimed that henceforth power was to be with the people. In a rousing speech at Blackheath he declared, among other things: “I charge and command that, of the city’s cost, the pissing conduit run nothing but claret wine this first year of our reign.”

No professional politician, before or since, has shown such an intuitive grasp of the popular will, nor a more deft mode of expressing it. But if Cade’s oratory prompted wild cheering, in which aim it can hardly have failed, the greatest and most prolonged roar of approval, sufficient to rent the very heavens, must have greeted the words of Cade’s follower Dick the Butcher: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

Today those ten words have a resonance as powerful and appealing as the day they were uttered. Which brings us to the Big Mac, or rather to those who see it as their task to defend its mighty integrity, even against the pinprick of a supposed adversary from Fenny Stratford.

Like Jack Cade, Mary Blair strayed far from her Celtic roots to find her calling. But while his was bloody insurrection, hers was to bring sandwiches, tea, coffee and a welcoming smile to the good people of the Buckinghamshire village where she opened her snack bar. Cade, his revolt in ruins by the third day, was hunted down and killed by the King’s men; Mary Blair escaped with a knock on the door and a threatening word from Big Mac.

Her crime? To call her sandwich bar McMunchies. McDonald’s – with more than 15,000 restaurants worldwide, serving 28 million customers daily in some 80 countries on six continents, and with annual sales in excess of $25bn (16bn) – unleashed its thunderbolt on the sandwich cutter from Fenny Stratford because, according to its corporate lawyers, her use of the prefix “Mc” infringed copyright and could confuse the public.

Oh Dick the Butcher, wouldst thou were alive at this hour! The scurvy heads of attorneys and scriveners on your honest block, your cleaver raised, deliverance at hand.

Are McDonald’s lawyers sleek-suited, buttoned-down, gimlet-eyed, and razor sharp? Or are they, as the affair of Fenny Stratford suggests, fright-wigged in shocking red, painted grins on whitened faces, mirthlessly capering, stiff-limbed and bone-headed, in striped motley? For it was surely that ersatz clown, Ronald McDonald, who drew up the legal opinion that put the bite on Mary Blair.

As she herself says, any would-be McDonald’s customer who went into her bar would soon discover his mistake. “We don’t sell hamburgers or fries or shakes, and the shop doesn’t even look like McDonald’s. How can they own Mc? It means they own half the names in Scotland.” She chose the name, she adds, because she is Scottish.

She knows, however, she cannot win. “I can’t hope to fight a company with the finances of McDonald’s.”

That is both true, and, in its way, more distasteful than a Chicken McNugget. For in threatening Miss Blair, casting over her the giant shadow of a multinational corporation, McDonald’s appears crass, emotionless and bullying, the very reverse of the qualities it spends millions of dollars to promote as its own.

The statistics I quoted earlier are from a little white book called Fact File, published by McDonald’s Communications Department. Here are some more of its contents: “Employees…and job applicants…are treated without reference to race, colour, nationality, ethnic origin, gender, marital status or disability.

“McDonald’s helps customers to balance their diet by providing detailed nutrition information on all its products.

“McDonald’s is analysing every aspect of its business in terms of its impact on the environment…Since 1991, all company cars have used lead-free petrol and have catalytic converters.

“UK McDonald’s aims to become synonymous with helping young people in need.

“McDonald’s has always had a very strong corporate social stance born out of a philanthropic desire…to put something back in the community.”

And so on, and on. Page after page reeking of responsibility, care, concern, social awareness, charity. Like a billionaire in search of a wife, McDonald’s is desperate to be loved, not for its money, but for itself. It goes to extraordinary lengths to tell us how lovely it is. It settles its suppliers’ invoices promptly; it only uses Iceberg lettuce; all office stationery is made from recycled paper; it deplores all forms of sexual and racial harassment; it organises free coffee mornings for senior citizens in many restaurants; it hates litter. In short, it is a treasure, a gem, a jewel, a paragon.

That kind of virtue does not come cheap. It takes years of painstaking effort and millions of pounds to craft a corporate image fit to take its place among the ranks of the pure and saintly. What beggars belief is that no one has taken the trouble to tell the lawyers. It doesn’t do for a self-canonised icon to come clambering down from its pedestal and tread all over sole traders in village backwaters.

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