‘Absolutely Spicy’ reads this Chinese ad for America’s biggest fast food restaurant. This advertisement, disseminated widely across Beijing, caught my attention because it shows what a tremendous job McDonald’s has done in instilling a hunger for fast food amongst China’s 1.3 billion citizens.
According to a Reuters news report, there are over 1,000 McDonald’s franchises across the People’s Republic of China, and that number is expected to double within the next three years. In certain districts of Beijing, it is difficult to walk more than a few kilometers without encountering a golden arches. I never really eat fast food in the U.S., so the only time I went inside a Beijing McDonald’s was the night before the deadline of the magazine I was working at to pick up coffee for an impending all-nighter.
The place was packed. Swarms of businessman, families, and couples occupied the congested seating area with dozens more lined up in queues readily waiting to place their order. What amazed me was the sheer influx of customers present in a single American fast food chain; there were at least eighty people present.
Why were so many people lining up for unhealthy, over-priced meals at an American franchise when restaurants and street vendors in Beijing serve an array of sumptuous food at a fraction of the cost? Initially I thought it had something to do with the prestige associated with American culture as seen in the surge of Chinese cigarette smokers and the demand for American employees at Chinese firms.
However, the real culprit is tactical corporate advertising. In Beijing, advertisements are plastered across subway doors, apartment buildings, and public buses, so it is difficult to avoid the constant attack of subliminal advertising. The portrayal of McDonald’s meals as sumptuous and satisfying are appealing to masses of citizenry who have grown up subsisting on a Chinese diet (authentic Chinese food is delicious and much healthier than what most Americans eat, but is low in calories and deficient in sugar, salt, and fat). No wonder millions of Chinese patronize McDonald’s franchises across mainland China every year.
This advertisement is so compelling to me because it indicates the direction Chinese consumer culture is heading towards. No longer will their culture be clouded by years of isolation mandated by a communist regime. By opening up their market, Deng Xiaoping inadvertently opened up their society to the pervasive influences of the West.
Living abroad in China, I sometimes felt as though I was in an American city that had been taken over by China. Western culture and indications of China’s modernization and development are sometimes so prevalent that it is hard to distinguish what is left of 20th century China. This advertisement is one of many signs that China is undergoing a cultural revolution not through industrializations or infrastructural development, but through an opening up of their culture to influences of the Western world.