This story was first published on TIME.com in January, 2002
Like the Romans before it, the empire of the Golden Arches has finally succumbed to the indomitable spirit of Asterix the Gaul. As of Wednesday, Ronald McDonald has been retired as the icon of McDonald’s France, replaced by the Gallic nationalist comic-book hero. Ironies abound, of course, since Asterix had been something of an anti-Mcdonald’s icon, appropriated by anti-globalization protestors such as Mac-basher Jose Bove to symbolize French resistance to foreign encroachment. Resentment of the perceived “McDonaldization” of their culture runs high in France — the influential daily Le Monde, for example, warns that Mcdonald’s “commercial hegemony threatens agriculture and (its) cultural hegemony insidiously ruins alimentary behavior — sacred reflections of French identity.”
That may sound a little hysterical to the rest of the Mcworld, but spare a thought for those who actually have to market Big Macs to a population primed to view them as alien invaders out to ruin their sacred “alimentary behavior.” Co-opting Asterix may simply have been a case of the judo of globalization — use your enemy’s momentum against him.
This is hardly the first time McDonald’s France has aligned itself with symbols alien to, and even at odds with America’s own. In 1998, for example, the company ran a print ad campaign featuring overweight cowboys complaining about the fact that McDonald’s France refuses to buy American beef but uses only French, to “guarantee maximum hygienic conditions” — an unsubtle effort to identify the Global Arches with European efforts to block the import of hormone-laced American beef.
Americans may find it strange to see their “official sandwich” touted by a bellicose cartoon warrior with pigtails and a big moustache, but such adjustments are part and parcel of marketing across cultures. Indeed, if an Indian Mac tastes a little different, that’s because it’s a “lamb-burger” — eating beef offends Hindu tradition. Forget about ordering a cheeseburger at a kosher outlet in Israel (mixing milk and meat is a no-no), but you could always console yourself in Cairo with a “McFalafel,” or in Bangkok with a “Samurai Pork Burger.” Big Macs are hard to find on the menus of the 80 Mcdonald’s outlets in Beijing, which include spicy chicken wings and red bean pie — the Big Mac is there, of course, it’s just sporting a more grandiose moniker: “Lu Wu Ba” (“huge incomparable warlord”).
Not only do local McDonald’s marketers have to adapt the chain’s offerings to the local palate, they are also often careful to align their product with local heroes and concerns. Sometimes that’s a hedge against the Golden Arches becoming the first stop, as it invariably is, for any anti-American mob assembled to protest some aspect of U.S. foreign policy. It’s fine for the Golden Arches to be identified with all things American in markets where all things American are celebrated. Elsewhere, however, different tactics may be required.