McDonalds as a Cultural Barometer

Since its humble start in the 1940s, McDonald’s and its golden arches have become a powerful symbol worldwide. Thanks to its focus on standardizing food and experience, McDonald’s also serves as an indicator by which we can see the evolution of Western culture (particularly for the United States).

1950s-1960s: Beginnings

Although the first McDonald’s was opened in 1940, it wasn’t until the 50s when the restaurant began to franchise. The existence of McDonald’s, and the food category it helped expand, reflect key trends of the postwar era. A burgeoning middle class and the ideal “American Dream” increasingly included mass-production items across everyday life. At the same time, the “on the road” travel culture in the United States increased mobility (and hungry travelers in new locations).

McDonald’s developed its own “Hamburger University” to instill the “Speedee Service System” of the original McDonald’s location into new employees, as well as the Ronald McDonald mascot, branded recipes (including the Big Mac in 1968), and supply chain infrastructure. This created a consistent experience no matter where you went — by the end of the 1960s, if you were a hungry traveler driving by the Golden Arches, you knew that you could get a Big Mac there, just the same as the one you’d get in your hometown. Convenience and affordability quickly won customers.

1970s: the Era of Expansion

In the 1970s, McDonald’s took its bright color palette and assembly-line service to the rest of the Western world, incorporating both “destination entertainment” and “on-to-go” cultural elements.

Drive-through windows opened in the 1970s, removing the need to even enter a location to pick up something to eat. A natural expansion of assembly-line design broader fast-food drive-in expectations, this innovation lent itself well to the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

McDonald’s playpens also arrived during this time, creating a space where parents could let their kids eat and entertain themselves with adjacent slides and ball pits. This child-focused branding dramatically expanded at the end of the 1970s, when the Happy Meal was born (with a child’s toy gifted in every meal) thanks to the innovation of a franchisee in Guatemala, Yolanda Fernández de Cofiño.

McDonald’s had already expanded outside the United States in the late 1960s, but the 70s were when it really started to branch out. By the end of the 1970s, McDonald’s could lay claim to franchises across North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and Oceania.

Together, these innovations coincided with a United States government increasingly involved in foreign affairs, particularly against the influence of the Eastern bloc. They reflect the duality of United States culture: equal parts on-the-go and family-oriented, engrossed in scandals at home and embroiled in a broader notion of patriotism.

1980s-1990s: New World Order

The colors and design of this era didn’t change as much as the underlying norms.

Happy Meal gifts evolved from generic toys to a more consistent advertising platform, collaborating with big brands to feature toys from the latest TV show, movie, or other child-geared venture. Apple pies became baked instead of deep-fried in 1992 in response to health concerns. Smoking was banned in 1994 as part of a broader response in the US to detrimental secondhand smoking effects, particularly on children. These changes, big and small, illuminated increasing attention McDonald’s was placing on how people interacted with its image and environment. Like much of the United States, however, it only paid lip service to actual health concerns of its menu options, a foreshadow of excess that would haunt McDonald’s later on.

Internationally, the arrival of McDonald’s in the then-USSR in 1990 came with reports of long lines and fascination the all the promise the capitalist world of the United States could bring. While some reports were certainly sensationalized, it’s possible that “McDonald’s diplomacy” helped hasten the decline of the Soviet Union by standing as a testament against traditional anti-West propaganda.

In an ironic twist, the red-and-yellow colors combined with a standardized, assembly line ethos had transformed into a symbol of the United States as the dominant superpower of its time.

2000s-Present: Color Fades to Grayscale

At the turn of the millennium, hope burned bright, as did the colors of McDonald’s eateries around the world. By 2000, McDonald’s had more than 11,000 franchises outside the US, with 28,707 restaurants bearing the Golden Arches in total. But this 21st century era also saw the erosion of McDonald’s own prominence at the dinner table, and, in parallel, the decline of US power in the world.

Critical works, like Fast Food Nation and Super Size Me, began to call mainstream attention to fast food’s role in the rise of obesity worldwide. Although McDonald’s made changes in response (most notably eliminating its Supersize menu), the stigma of unhealthiness in an era added some tarnish to the once-golden luster of its brand.

At the same time, fast-casual dining began to take off with perceived healthier and fresher options. Chipotle, a fast-casual restaurant chain focused on Mexican-styled cuisine, once had the majority of its company owned by McDonald’s thanks to an investment in 1998. In 2006, it was spun off, and quickly became a fierce competitor for consumer dollars.

Calorie counts appear in 2009 in California thanks to legislation signed by then-governor Schwarzenegger, with federal law following a decade later in 2018. People could more easily see how much a Big Mac impacted their diet (or how a salad with dressing had more calories than a burger!). In response, McDonald’s began to add more perceived-healthier options to its menu, including grilled chicken, a fruit & yogurt parfait, and apple slices in Happy Meals.

McDonald’s also began to roll out a massive shift in its branding during this time. Storefronts with bright colors were paved over with toned-down gray paneling and the veneer of a more posh interior: less whimsy, more transactional.

If McDonald’s is a cultural barometer, what are we to make of the modern shift to gray tones over its tried-and-true cafeteria design? There are competitive positioning reasons to do so — fast-casual restaurants with these similar looks have increasingly dominated the fast-dining segment — and the neutral gray isn’t likely to evoke any strong negative feelings. On the flipside, the rebrand isn’t likely to spark any strong positive feelings, either.

And maybe that’s the point. As McDonald’s rebranded its physical image throughout the late 2010s/early 2020s, the Western world faced, and continues to face, many threats to stability all at once. With the world overwhelming as it is, McDonald’s perhaps seeks to strike a boring middle ground; nothing that inspires, but nothing that detracts, either.

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