The Starbucksization of McDonaldís

With so much heart-healthy talk and its new veggie-heavy ad campaign, you might forget that McDonald’s still sells big, gooey burgers. Otis White addresses (3rd item down) some of the other changes going on at the Golden Arches. Would you believe wi-fi, moveable fake-leather chairs and fireplaces?

What in the name of Mickey D’s is going on here? A lot of things, the most important of which is that McDonald’s hasn’t done well in recent years. In the first years of this decade, the stock dropped like a rock and the company actually lost money in one quarter of 2002. The company was under attack for its artery-clogging, obesity-enabling menu. (The documentary movie “Super Size Me” and book “Fast Food Nation” told the world what it already knew: This food isn’t good for you.) And the restaurants themselves were eyesores, prominent examples of what makes suburban highways so depressingly ugly. The company has worked hard to turn things around. Its finances have improved and its stock has revived.

Increased affluence gave rise to suburbia and a legion of sour critics who derided it for being soulless and ugly. But at some point the rise in affluence also prompts people to care more about aesthetics. It’s not enough to fill their bellies cheaply; consumers now want an experience. McD’s is even sexing-up its outward appearance: no more ugly brown roofs, where are those golden arches? Of course, this sort of transformation is pretty common. Even newer suburban subdivisions are often much less “cookie-cutter” than their predecessors. Shows how the the caricature of a diabolical corporation forcing us to buy whatever it’s selling is so unsatisfying. McDonald’s makeover is more proof that we consumers are in charge. And how about this for a “Super Size Me” sequel: Spurlock gets fat again and then loses the weight by exercising and eating only the healthy items on McDonald’s menu. For more on the rise of the aesthetic, see Virginia Postrel.