Blacked Out in Plain Sight

Sept. 24 - We lost power at about 12:30 yesterday afternoon. The outage affected the entire island of Sjælland, which includes Copenhagen, as well as the Danish island of Bornholm and parts of southern Sweden.

Sweden was blamed for the outage. Blaming Sweden is something of a national past-time in Denmark—just a notch below tax evasion—so I'm not sure whether or not it's accurate, but I can only pass on what I'm told.

The interesting thing about this blackout was the outside's world indifference. Just a month ago, during the blackout in the American northeast, I remember CNN correspondents in Baghdad giddily asking Iraqis if they had any sympathy for Americans going without power. When our own power was restored late yesterday afternoon, I immediately turned on CNN and waited breathlessly for the charming mockery of their anchors and correspondents. Surely uppity little Denmark had this coming—they were, after all, part of the coalition.

Not a word. Maybe that's because it affected Sweden, too. They wouldn't want to upset the Swedes—after all, they were against the war and therefore didn't deserve a blackout.

Even without the merry derision of CNN's chattering chowderheads, though, I thought it was reasonable to assume that a blackout affecting many millions of people, and shutting down as large a city as Copenhagen, would merit a mention somewhere.

But it didn't. It was as if the whole thing had never happened.

Meanwhile, in an apparently unrelated story that I'm going to try to integrate thematically in just a few paragraphs, McDonald's has been fined by government authorities for vandalizing Copenhagen. As part of a new campaign, last week they shrouded dozens of Copenhagen's public chairs, benches, tables, and statues—and one prominent Stork Fountain—in police-line type tape emblazoned with the slogan, "I'm Lovin' It."

"Pure marketing," says McDonald's.

"Pure vandalism," say city officials.

McDonald's Communications Director Kristian Scheef Madsen said it was, "klassbrøleren med Storkespringvandet"—"a classic screw-up with the Stork Fountain." They never intended to provoke anyone, he said. They didn't want to generate any ill will with their campaign. (Which distinguishes it nicely, I suppose, from all those marketing campaigns intended to generate ill will.)

They've been fined 20,000 Danish crowns, or about $3500, which is probably less than they spent printing all that tape. It's certainly a lot less than they'd have to pay for the type of coverage they got. Unfortunately, they seem to have forgotten that the celebrity tautology "there's no such thing as bad publicity" doesn't quite hold for grease-peddling icons of Americana trying to do business in a country that sees their very presence as an affront to their culture.

I don't think McDonald's is inherently bad. I don't think their food is very healthy and I haven't eaten any of it since leaving the states, but some of it's awfully damn tasty. It's quick and convenient and, in the states at least, it's also pretty cheap ("Value Meals" begin at about six or seven bucks here). It's also worth noting that they wouldn't be here if there weren't enough Danish consumers to sustain them.

All that said, I can't think of a stupider marketing campaign. Okay, I can—that whole "Where's Herb?" thing Burger King tried in the late 80s—but still: imagine if some French corporation plastered all the benches in Central Park with some idiotic French slogan. ("Que je l'aime!") Americans already upset with France would just have one more reason to despise them; Americans fond of France would suddenly find it that much harder to defend them; and Americans unaware of the existence of France would find themselves irritated by the hideous tape. Greens would take to the street to decry the environmental impact.

Whether Danish McDonaldses are American- or Danish-owned is beside the point. Those golden arches are as potent a symbol of America as the Statue of Liberty. Anyone marketing a product with such obvious cultural resonance ought to know better than to piss all over their local market. If this campaign was undertaken with American marketing support, it was the worst-conceived plan in McDonald's history and appropriate heads should roll (although if this campaign was conceived in America, it's hard to imagine it came from people who had heads to begin with). If it was undertaken without American support, then McDonald's USA needs to slap some sense into its Danish subsidiaries.

That was my gut reaction. Now here's my sneaking suspicion: marketing researchers have discovered that, despite anecdotal evidence to the contrary, Europeans are still irresistably drawn to our anarchic, overblown, amphetamine-charged culture. They tell pollsters we're loud, obnoxious, shallow, trivial, self-centered, and so on—but the pollsters never ask the important follow-up question: how do you feel about that?

I suspect a lot of Europeans might admit, secretly, that they get a kick out of it. I don't mean they like it. I don't even mean they approve it. I mean they enjoy it. They look at us the way our own snobs look at the Jerry Springer show: outward disapproval masking inward mesmerization.

And so my sneaking suspicion is that McDonald's DK is just trying to position McDonald's not to overcome but to pander to the local expectations of American culture (ugly, trashy, cheap). "We'll never overcome our American identity," they've concluded, "but why should we? Everyone secretly loves America, so let's show them just how American we can be."

And merrily, merrily, merrily, they piss all over lovely Copenhagen.

But then, maybe I just need more coffee.

* * *

Now you're wondering how I'm going to tie these two apparently unrelated stories together. So am I. I had a notion of how it could be done when I began, but I've lost the thread.

I definitely need more coffee.

...They Had More Money

On this date in 1896, a young Minnesota woman gave birth to a depressive young alcoholic named Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald. The boy did badly in school and went to train for war in 1918. While training at Camp Sheridan in Alabama, he fell in love with Zelda Sayre, the mentally unstable daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court judge. The war ended before Fitzgerald could be sent overseas and shot, so he went to New York to become rich and famous.

He became neither, so Zelda broke off their engagement.

Fitzgerald then moved to Minnesota. A year later he became a famous writer. He moved to Connecticut, Zelda married him, and they became drunken celebrity wrecks.

They spent a lot of time in Europe. This lasted until Zelda went mad and Fitzgerald died.

Fitzgerald is best remembered for having said the rich were different, even though Hemingway made fun of him.

Also, he wrote some books.

Other folks born on this date include Phil Hartman (1948), Linda McCartney (1941), Jim Henson (1936), and Jim McKay (1921).

It's Heritage Day in South Africa and Republic Day in Trinidad and Tobago.

Happy Wednesday!

© 2003, The Moron's Almanac™

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