A Furious, Hungry Courtship: How McDonald's Is Wooing China

Happy meals try to appeal to traditional Chinese values.
(Image: johnsember/Creative Commons)
Jul 29, 2011
Megan Bedard is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

Thanks to 30 years of implementing a strict one-child policy, China recently shirked its title of being home to one-fifth of the world's population. But with a still-robust population—now 19 percent of the world's six billion people—China is a tasty target for the world's largest restaurant chain, McDonald's. The burger franchise announced this week plans to open a new restaurant each day in the Communist country over the next four years.

When you're working to win the hearts and stomachs of a nation where pride for traditional cuisine runs deep, creative courtship is key.

Here, a brief survey of McDonald's efforts to woo one of the world's oldest civilations.

The Y Chromosome Discount

A societal preference for males is a well-known feature of Chinese culture, becoming widely apparent when China introduced its one-child policy and the ratios of the sexes were suddenly skewed. Today, males outnumber females by more than 30 million. In keeping with the celebration of all things male, McDonald's introduced a discount in China in December of 2010: half off the purchase of a second burger—for men only.

A Promise of Great Libidos

McDonald's truly pulled out the stops with its advertising techniques when it cut straight to the biological instincts of humans everywhere: eat our burgers, the company told China, and your sex life will skyrocket.

An advertisement promoting the release of the quarter-pounder cheeseburger, for example, featured adults licking their fingers as fireworks exploded and water sprayed in the background. A voiceover promised alluringly: "You can feel it. Thicker. You can taste it. Juicier." Print ads appealed to the Chinese connotations of beef as a manly meal, and upped the ante by implying that manliness extends to libido as well. One ad featured a man who was concerned he wouldn't be able to handle the five dates he had scheduled for the following day: "Have enough beef tonight," the ad encouraged men in a similar predicament, so you "will be able to handle five princesses tomorrow."

Bring on the Corn Cup

(Image from McDonalds.com)

While red meat has been an easy sell to eager Westerner wanna-bes, the long-standing staples of rice, pork, and certain veggies hasn't meshed well with the traditional Mickey D's menu. Not to be set back, McDonald's created a research and development center, where Chinese-appropriate edibles are created. The corn cup—literally a cup full of corn "invented" by researchers to suit local tastes—was a huge success and has since been implemented on menus in other Asian countries. Items like Taro Pie make use of common Chinese staples like the taro, a root vegetable native to Southeast Asia.

Prosperity, With a Side of Fries

Just 45 years ago, much of China was suffering widespread famine that followed Chairman Mao Zedong's disastrous economic and social campaign, the Great Leap Forward. Thirty million people died from starvation as a result of defunct agricultural policies. Today, in many areas of China, chubby children are a sign of prosperity and—as the still-common saying "a fat child is a healthy child" implies—a source of pride.

As families make their way into middle class, fast food is a status symbol. Though McDonald's is a relatively low-brow cuisine here in the States, abroad the company touts its beef as a luxury item. When the company opened its first restaurant in the city of Shenzen in Guangdong province in 1990, the monthly salary of urban residents at the time was 120 yuan; a Big Mac sold for 10 yuan. Though a burgeoning middle class has made McDonald's more affordable to many Chinese people, the company is still a status symbol in urban areas. Even the simple act of "queuing up" to order food is considered an upper-class behavior because it mimics the Western practice of waiting in lines.

McDonald's execs may be smiling at their success, but the company's surge in China is not good news for everyone. According to state reports, 300 million Chinese are obese. Though we can't attribute all double chins to the double arches, it's hard to ignore the fact that obesity rates increased by 97 percent in the country from 1992 to 2002—just two years after McDonald's staked its territory. If rates continue to rise, McDonald's may find itself competing for real estate with another burgeoning business: weight-loss clinics.

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