Thursday, May 24, 2007


Firmly embedded in our popular culture are the phrases ‘Big Mac’, ‘golden arches’ and ‘do you want fries with that?’ And when we think of McDonald’s, the first concept that comes to mind these days is not a Scottish clan that was given a rough time by the Campbells in 1692.

Not content with their dominion in the minds of all seeking instant gastronomic gratification, the corporation has recently set its sights on the Oxford English Dictionary for listing the term ‘McJob’, defined as "an unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, esp. one created by the expansion of the service sector".

According to today’s Guardian, a public petition is being launched on behalf of the company's 67,000 British employees and other fast-food service personnel, to remove this ‘insulting’ definition.

If they get their way, one wonders if they’ll turn their attention to the rewriting of history or demand that copies of Douglas Coupland’s Generation X (where the term originated) be removed from our library shelves.

The story has been picked up by Strive Notes with some commentary on whether this campaign is cleverly targeting the OED in an effort to change public perception, although the Guardian reports a poll, commissioned as part of the campaign, in which over two thirds agree with McDonald’s that the term is outdated. (Is it me or does anyone else detect the slight whiff of astroturf here?)

The problem with viewing this as a legitimate PR exercise is one of ethics. Dictionary definitions change to reflect changes in language and culture. Putting one’s corporate weight behind a lobby campaign to try and force that change to happen is arguably indefensible if PR is to maintain any integrity as a profession. Many people use the admittedly rhetorical term ‘McJob’ to mean precisely what the OED states. The dictionary isn’t forcing people to use this term and will no doubt drop the word – or at least mark it as archaic – if the term is no longer used.

McDonald’s lost a lot of credibility during the McLibel case in the UK, despite actually winning the case. The episode enhanced their reputation as a touchy, litigious organisation that doesn’t respond well to criticism or to the use of the Mc- prefix in any way that could conceivably act against their corporate interests.

Running PR campaigns like legal campaigns could well result in short-term victorious headlines, but I would offer this simple observation for anyone in corporate PR - you don’t change how people really feel about you by censoring dictionaries.

McDonald’s    OED    corporate PR     ethics     McLibel     astroturfing


Heather Yaxley said...

Is this a campaign to get people thinking about working with McDonalds and hence changing perceptions (and thereby the dictionary may ultimately change). Or is it a "mighty corporate" threatening legal action to get its own way? As you indicate, it is a potentially dangerous strategy, especially if it lacks any sense of self-deprecation or humour, and looks like an organisation attempting to control the organic English language.

They've definitely gained attention through the press agentry, but what will be the longer term impact on reputation?

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