Monday, March 16, 2015

Fast Food Burgers Shouldn't Trivialize Downtowns

Take a look at the photos to the right.  Do they all look alike?  If so, congratulations, you can work in corporate marketing.  If not, I’m sorry but you seem destined for a career that involves a higher level of truthfulness.

I can make this judgment because it appears that the corporate marketing department of McDonalds thought all three scenes were of a piece and that there would be nothing deceitful in using the bucolic rural surroundings and walkable downtown of Petaluma to promote a McDonalds in front of a strip
mall a mile and a half from downtown.

If you haven’t yet seen the resulting commercial, it’s embedded in this article in a local newspaper.   The video is worth a view, if only to allow you to form your own opinion about the marketing strategy.

Not surprisingly, there’s controversy.  As covered in the newspaper article, in the coverage by the Bay Area NBC affiliate, and also as expressed by those with whom I’ve chatted, some find that any publicity is good publicity and that showing the best elements
of Petaluma in a national ad campaign overcomes any negatives of being associated with a fast food chain.

Others find the connection to McDonalds odious and believe that Petaluma suffers by association.

I can see the merits in both arguments, but lean to the former argument, perhaps giving television viewers too much credit for their ability to distinguish between a worthwhile place and a consumer product.

However, as is my wont, my primary allegiance goes to a third opinion that I’ll formulate below.  

I think the real problem with the commercial is that it marginalizes walkable urbanism.  Stripped to its basics, McDonalds argues for two propositions.  First, they argue walkable downtowns, and also pastoral country roads, are cool places.  Second, they argue that as long as there are cool places in or near a community, then all of the land uses in the community are also cool places.  I endorse the first argument and emphatically reject the second.

I love a good downtown, a standard that downtown Petaluma easily meets.  But having a couple of blocks of a walkable downtown isn’t nearly enough.  The goal must be to have more and more blocks of walkable urban settings for the environmental and financial health of our communities.

When McDonalds argues that a walkable downtown makes a McDonalds cool even if it’s eight traffic lights away from downtown, it reduces urbanism from a vital element of our future to a checkmark on a list.  It says that having a walkable downtown way on the other side of the freeway is sufficient.  And that argument is both wrong and harmful.

(I know that McDonalds sometimes occupies urban buildings.  I passed a storefront McDonalds on the walk from the Windsor train station to Windsor Castle west of London and I recall seeing windblown McDonalds wrappers in Parisian gutters near the Louvre, but I think we’d all agree that the natural habitat of McDonalds is in the midst of seas of asphalt and served by drive-thrus.)

I understand that corporate marketing isn’t about urbanism or even truthfulness, so I won’t overly condemn the McDonalds’ creative team.  But I certainly hope that most readers see through the wrong-headed propaganda.

I’d probably boycott McDonalds going forward except that I haven’t eaten at one in years so my threat wouldn’t carry much weight.  But I encourage readers to do as I do and to give much of their patronage to restaurants, even if chains, that don’t diminish the importance of urban settings.

In my next post, I’ll write about cars.  I have a Prius that’s approaching its tenth anniversary as my car, including the past several years as the only family car.  Therefore, I was initially offended by a dismissive comment I recently read about Priuses.  But the more that I considered the sentiment, the more underlying truth I found.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


  1. Soon after I published the post above, someone forwarded a link to me that is on the same subject and also worth your time,

  2. Schooling McDonald's on Localism:

    1. Ryder, thanks for the link. I've copied it here because Blogspot only allows the author to put live links in the comments, (I don't know why. I just go along with it.)

      Also, I'll note that the professor being interviewed is making a point with which I agree, but is a different point than I've tried to make above. The professor argues for local. I argue for urbanism. The two are distinct, but complementary.