Published in the Fall 2007 issue • The Last Word
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from bad horror movies and ill-fated trips to the circus, it’s this: don’t piss off the clown.
This advice is particularly true when the clown in question is Ronald McDonald, with his multi-billion dollar burger empire of lawyers, marketing gurus and researchers.
This time, the target of Ronald’s wrath is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and, in particular, the way it defines McJob as “an unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, esp. one created by the expansion of the service sector.”
McDonald’s UK is calling for the OED to revise its definition, which was added in March 2001, claiming that it’s out of date and inaccurate. UK CEO Peter Beresford has called the entry “demeaning to the hard work and dedication displayed by the 67,000 McDonald’s employees throughout the UK.”
This isn’t the first time the burger giant has tried to rewrite the dictionary. When McJob was added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2003 (defined as “a low-paying job that requires little skill and provides little opportunity for advancement”), the US CEO at the time, Jim Cantalupo, sent an open letter suggesting “a more appropriate definition of a ‘McJob’ might be ‘teaches responsibility.’”
But Merriam-Webster stood by its original assessment, arguing that the word had been used in a derogatory manner for more than 17 years, in publications ranging from The New York Times and Rolling Stone to newspapers in South Africa and Australia.
The term “McJOBS” (plural and uppercase) was trademarked by McDonald’s in 1984 as a name for its program “training handicapped persons as restaurant employees,” but it quickly picked up negative connotations.
A 1987 Washington Post article titled “McJobs are bad for kids” brought the expression into the public eye, as sociologist Amitai Etzioni warned parents to think twice about letting their children enter the world of the McJob. “These are breeding grounds for robots working for yesterday’s assembly lines, not tomorrow’s high-tech posts,” he noted.
But it was best-selling author Douglas Coupland who cemented the term’s place in the English lexicon. A footnote in his book Generation X (1991) defined McJob as “a low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future job in the service sector. Frequently considered a satisfying career choice by people who have never held one.”
Now Ronald is putting down his Big Mac and putting up his dukes.
In 2006, McDonald’s UK launched an advertising campaign to change the public perception of McJobs. The first step was commissioning a study of the ways McJobs help young people. “Brighter Futures,” released by psychology professor Adrian Furnham at University College London, argued that service-sector jobs provide youth with personal growth and career opportunities.
With this research in hand, McDonald’s UK released a series of 18 different ads highlighting the perks of working at McDonald’s, all ending with the tagline, “Not bad for a McJob.” The ads ran in every McDonald’s location across the UK and on the giant screens at London’s Piccadilly Circus.
In the US this May, McDonald’s released a TV spot trying to combat the no-future image of the McJob with the rags-to-riches story of McDonald’s USA’s east division president, Karen King, who went from flipping burgers in high school to managing 5,000 restaurants today.
And then, of course, there’s the battle against the OED. McDonald’s UK announced earlier this year that it would be launching a petition to have the dictionary change its definition and that employees would be given the “opportunity” to sign it.
And what if you’re a fry guy who agrees with the OED’s assessment and would rather not sign? Well, good luck explaining your lack of McEnthusiasm to your boss.
Petition or not, odds are good the OED will maintain its definition of McJob, just like Merriam-Webster did. After all, the job of the dictionary is to document the way language is actually used, not the way corporations want us to use it. And while Karen King may have found, in her words, “limitless opportunity … under the arches,” thousands of other contingent workers aren’t lovin’ it there. No matter how you spin it, a McJob is still a McJob.
Melinda Mattos is the co-founder of Shameless and a professional word nerd.