If anything says “New York” more than a bagel, it’s graffiti and hip-hop. That, at least, is the premise of a new Dutch campaign for McDonald’s, from TBWA\Neboko.
To promote a new burger—the New York Bagel Supreme—in the Netherlands, the fast-food giant flew in a half-dozen street artists from the Brooklyn-based mural project Bushwick Collective, and is paying them to paint stylized versions of the sandwich on a series of billboards. McDonald’s is filming all this, and will turn it into TV ads.
If that weren’t enough, the marketer also commissioned a soundtrack from old-school Newark hip-hop group Artifacts, and singer Denise Weeks—the New York City subway performer who gained some fame through an X Factor appearance (in which Simon Cowell was surprisingly supportive).
Titled “New York Flavor,” the song is available as a stand-alone, but also interwoven with the campaign, including its own full-blown music video.
Here’s the music video:
A longer, four-minute documentary-style piece promises to capture the “Vibe of Bushwick NY,” and focuses on the murals of the Bushwick Collective—a nonprofit group that’s turned the neighborhood into a graffiti hot spot by covering exterior building walls with striking, large-scale pieces. It’s actually not a bad watch. Old-timers offer some brief context on the history of graffiti and the city (the collective’s founder, Joseph Ficalora, is a real native), the work itself is generally gorgeous, and the artists’ passion for it genuine—even if the gentrification that’s allowed for the renaissance is a morally complex issue.
Here’s the documentary:
Early in the video, a small disclaimer at the top of the screen hints at some of the tensions of the campaign: “All Bushwick [Collective] murals are painted with permission of the owners. McDonald’s loves street art when done legally.” But it’s not until the end, when the content shifts into selling mode, and the campaign anthem kicks in, that things start to get really awkward.
That’s probably because, as amazing as the artistry and stories of the individuals involved may be, the gist of the McDonald’s campaign basically boils down to a multinational diabetes peddler co-opting them to sell two burger patties with bacon, cheese, lettuce and some kind of cole slaw, stacked on top of what is surely a sorry approximation of a real New York-style everything bagel.
The brand’s narcissism is perhaps most apparent in the hook of the song—”Let me put some flavor on you.” While most good pop choruses depend to some degree on metaphor, that wordplay is in this case distorted through McDonald’s advertising apparatus, from its abstract definition—style, sizzle, swagger—back into its literal meaning—the taste of a sandwich.
None of that is to malign the artists. The Bushwick Collective seems to be having fun playing with different aesthetic approaches to the burgers. Artifacts rappers El Da Sensei and Tame One lay out some solid verses, and Denise Weeks displays undeniable vocal talent. Hopefully, they’re all being paid handsomely. McDonald’s deserves credit insofar as its shedding light on the city’s culture, and in the most generous reading, capturing some of the melting-pot essence that makes New York what it is.
The result may play well in the Netherlands, its intended market. But sitting in New York, watching the ads, it’s hard to shake the sense that the brand is trying desperately to reconcile audiences’ authentic passion for street art and hip-hop (two aspects of a uniquely dense, diverse and dynamic metropolis that also has a strong historical identity around food) with the painfully contrived marketing hard-sell of a bastardized local product.
Everyone from New York knows the only place to get a decent New York bagel is in New York—and it’s definitely not at McDonald’s. Everyone from New York also knows the most quintessentially New York quality is to not try too hard to be something you’re not—a test McDonald’s fails by trying to be cool, and edgy, instead of a stiff, bottom-line driven corporation. (They could have always given the artists more freedom, and showcased New York in that way.)
Plus, everyone from New York knows the real flavor of the city is year-round smog, the stench of hot rotting garbage in the summer, and armpit sweat on a crowded train. Or, pizza.