The epic McDonald's libel trial ended yesterday. Hugo Gurdon, a satisfied
customer, argues that the burger behemoth is a force for good.
THE McLibel case, which ended yesterday after 313 days of testimony, eight weeks of summations and six months' deliberation, was like Proust; it went on for a very long time, but, boy, it was fun. How sad so few people today have sufficient leisure to spend an entire morning debating the quality of buns. It may not have been the trial of the century, as one lawyer suggested, but it was certainly a trial characteristic of our epoch and its preoccupations. McDonald's, the burger behemoth, was pitted against two vegetarian activists absolutely born to be irritants to an image-obsessed corporation.
Helen Steel and Dave Morris, delicately described in court reports as "unwaged", accused the company of poisoning customers, starving the Third World, destroying the rain forest, paying low wages, being cruel to animals and exploiting children. Oh, and lying.
If only the former gardener and former postman had accused the directors of smoking vulgarly fat cigars, it would have completed the palaeo-socialist lexicon of capitalist evils. How modern the company's giveaway toy dinosaurs seem in comparison with their detractors at the pressure group, London Greenpeace.
No one has ever accused McDonald's of lapsing into a sense of humour. So when directors read the pamphlet What's Wrong With McDonald's, they did not toss it aside with a light laugh, but stretched their eyes, spluttered and sued. McDonald's ended up spending #10 million in legal fees to prevent two British nobodies besmirching the corporate reputation. And even then, the nobodies achieved a partial victory; Justice Roger Bell decided McDonald's was indeed cruel to some animals, did pay low wages, and advertised to children. How absurd, by the by, that the second and third of these should be regarded as accusations and expose a company to "hatred, ridicule or contempt".
You cannot, however, blame McDonald's for refusing to give an inch. After all, its success is at least nine-tenths to do with a squeaky clean image. When your product is as dull as a hamburger, you need something more if you want to bestride the planet. And what McDonald's has is a reputation. It offers a place for families which is safe, brightly coloured, cheerful and, if you like that sort of thing, fun. If anyone sullies the purity of the image, the company comes down on them like a ton of money.
Bien pensants can scoff - in the sense of mocking, not of eating greedily (perish the thought) - but McDonald's attention to piffling details is what allows it to provide a million people with jobs at 21,000 outlets in 101 countries.
Its genius has been uniformity, which is precisely what makes it contemptible to some. It doesn't matter whether you are in Beijing or Buenos Aires, the Big Macs are the same. You know what you're getting. No one uses the company name unless he sells precisely and exclusively what HQ dictates.
McDonald's recently offered a free hamburger to any customer not served within 55 seconds of ordering. The marketing stunt flopped - franchisees could not keep up and found themselves dishing out more free food than was good for profits - but it demonstrated the sort of service-orientated homogeneity that prompts all but four per cent of Americans to patronise McDonald's at least once a year. Ray Kroc, the milkshake salesman who built the company, specified everything, even down to the amount of wax used on the little squares of paper separating each uncooked hamburger from its neighbour. The result is something that suburban man has come to rely on because it is, well, reliable.
The Big Mac is perhaps an emblem of late-20th-century life; variety is sacrificed for convenience. Much though some people may lament that, it has happened because people want it.
I was driving at night through the wastes of central Quebec recently, and my companion and I were hungry. We stopped at a petrol station and bought a couple of execrable ham sandwiches. Five miles down the road, the golden arches of a McDonald's loomed over the horizon and my companion wailed: "Ohhh! We could've had a Macky." The hamburger was such a familiar friend to her, as it is to 25 million other customers every day, that it has acquired affectionate nicknames.
The world's top burger chain possesses a marketing marvel in its prefix, "Mc". If you want McDonald's chicken, you are sold McNuggets. At breakfast, you buy Egg McMuffin. The wordplay is catching. On a school outing years ago a friend and I popped into a McDonald's. At the time, I was disfigured by a common adolescent ailment and my Smart Alec friend asked me why I tolerated the McZit on my nose.
The point is not that Big Macs give you an unhealthy complexion, though an unvaried diet of them would doubtless do so, but that the "Mc" is so potent that it brands anything to which it is applied. If there is one thing which
McDonald's goes after with even more fearful alacrity than defamation, it is imitation. Try opening a little fast food outlet, call it, say, McHotdogs and see how quickly the lawyers from Illinois hit you with a writ.
So they should, for they are entitled to defend what they have created and which, by voting with their wallets, people everywhere have endorsed.
David-and-Goliath stories such as the one which ended yesterday depict McDonald's as a corporate tyrant. But the truth is that the Big Mac is an expression of freedom. It, and Egg McMuffins, Chicken McNuggets, and Fillets O'Fish are edible symbols of the victory of capitalism and markets over demagogues and busybodies. The drive-by burger is democratic fare - the food of the post-Cold War era.