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Give Me Back that Filet O’ Fish, Give Me Back My Self Control

I just saw the one-year follow-up to the Give Me Back that Filet O’ Fish commercial from McDonald’s and I was disappointed by the effort. Apparently McDonald’s, while aware of the popularity of the first commercial, doesn’t seem to really understand what it was or why it worked. In the new spot, the two guys from the original reprise their offbeat roles while viewing a video of the singing fish on a cell phone. There’s really not much to the latest entry except the reference to the earlier spot. It’s more like a reminder than an addition to that previous work of genius.

Work of genius, you ask? I think so. At first glance, the original Give Me Back that Filet O’ Fish commercial just seemed like another absurd bit of deconstructionist advertising–a commercial non-sequitur–but I think there’s something much deeper going on. The original spot is funny, weird and vaguely disturbing, in that order. Funny: A slackerish looking guy sits in a garage, eating a Filet O’ Fish sandwich and nodding to a tune sung by one of those animatronic singing fish wall plaques. Weird: The whole thing really, but in particular the way it’s shot, the quirkiness of the art direction and the tune the fish is singing, the performances, the inexplicable arrival of the friend with the drill. Vaguely disturbing: The fact that the guy eating the sandwich is chubby, that he’s sitting on a weight bench, that the fish says “if it were you in that sandwich you wouldn’t be laughing at all”, that the guy is enjoying the performance of the fish and finally, the fact that I’m enjoying the performance of the fish.

That’s what makes this ad more than just another non-sequitur designed to get a laugh because it’s so off the wall. It’s actually a brilliant metaphoric representation of what’s going on with fast food and every part of it says something important. That singing fish is more than just a drug-store-novelty item relegated to the wall of the garage. It’s a representation of the irritating but addictive nature of most pop culture memes. It’s referencing the Ohrwurm quality. Ohrwurm is German for ear worm–a piece of music like a jingle that repeats compulsively in one’s head, that sneaks into your brain when you’re not paying close attention and triggers some subconscious pleasure center so well that you can’t easily stop thinking about it. It is annoying but irresistible and it’s an excellent crystallization of what’s so powerful about fast food. The Filet O’ Fish sandwich is a Bauchwurm–a belly worm–a piece of food that we eat compulsively because it triggers pleasure centers in the subconscious, in the lizard brain that is focused on physical survival but isn’t smart enough to realize that we’re not cavemen anymore.

So, the chubby slacker guy, eating on a weight bench instead of using it to work out, is a metaphor for the average (read obese) American. He’s minding his own business, waiting around for some unspecified thing to happen when his brain gets hooked by the irresistible Siren song of fast food. And without thinking about it consciously, he enjoys being hooked and grooves along to the primal pleasure of it. He is mindlessly eating.
 

Now it’s important that this story takes place in the garage. That singing fish was probably in the house at one point–a highly entertaining novelty that the whole family enjoyed. But now it’s been demoted to the garage because of its more annoying qualities. The chubby guy still gets to enjoy his mindless eating groove, but not in the house anymore. The singing fish is a metaphor for fast food.

Half way through the spot, a physically fit guy–probably a friend of the chubby slacker–walks into the garage. This friend clearly has a purpose; he’s holding a drill. Drill guy notices the odd connection between his chubby friend and the hypnotic fish and you can see that it disturbs him. Drill guy represents the people in society who are worried about what fast food is doing to everyone else. Drill guy notices, but he can’t do anything to stop the connection except be disturbed. You can tell because his drill is unplugged–he’s impotent.

So, the fish sings on, cementing the metaphor in all its glory. The fish asks the chubby slacker, through song, “What if it were you hanging up on this wall? If it were you in that sandwich you wouldn’t be laughing at all!” Now, I’m not even going to go into the potential religious symbolism of that fish stuck up on its plank as a sacrifice to our entertainment, I mean, seeing as it represents a product for which 40% of the total sales fall during Lent. Instead I’ll focus on the other bit of symbolism that seems to come through loud and clear. The fat guy is the fish. Hey, we all know that “you are what you eat.” The spot seems to be saying that the fat guy, main stream America, has been caught as surely as the fish, snagged by the bait of cheap, tasty fast food. He’s as trapped in his chubby body as the fish is on its wooden plank.

And then, there’s the scariest, most accurate part of the story. The fish on the wall, the one who is claiming to share a kinship with what’s in that sandwich, he isn’t even a real fish. He’s just the image of a fish built to addictively entertain. 

So wow, what a deep and accurate reflection of the plight of the modern eater McDonald’s served up with that first commercial. I’m pretty sure our analysis is not what they intended to say, and I don’t know whether it’s been effective in selling more Filet O’ Fish sandwiches, but I do know that it has struck a compulsively resonant chord with the audience. While the vast bulk of viewers may not consciously perceive the deeper meaning, it connects with them because they know intuitively that the problem with fast food is that it’s really an irresistible belly worm, entertainment disguised as food. On the most benign level, the spot captures what is so attractive about the Filet O’ Fish sandwich. If you don’t think about it too much, it makes you happy–the Filet O’ Fish probably more than most of McDonald’s other offerings, because it’s fish. And fish is good for you, right?
 
The new spot brings up one last note, a coda that McDonald’s probably didn’t intend but that puts a nice bow on the whole package. In the new spot, the singing fish is just another viral video–just another passing craze. The new commercial doesn’t express any insight or depth of its own, ultimately suggesting only that, maybe in the grand scale of human development, our irresistible attraction to fast food will turn out to be a transitory fad like the singing fish.

“Character gets to the heart of what good storytelling is all about. They’ve helped Wendy’s focus on what makes us unique, different and special and that’s helped us to get people’s attention, keep their interest and keep the business growing. We compete with much larger brands, but by being overt about how we want to attack those differences, we’ve been able to have a lot of tension and conflict in the story that we are telling. That allows us to keep the story fresh and to fuel it. The more we do that the more positive attention we get as a brand and the more the brand continues to grow, which, in turn, builds our confidence in our storytelling and keeps the courage level high.”

—Kurt  Kane, President U.S. & Chief Commercial Officer, Wendy’s Corporation

“I’ve been through Character’s story framework process four times in my career, and it has always added extraordinary value. It was a central piece of Walmart’s rebranding effort in 2006, as we sought a new articulation of our brand narrative and our purpose. It’s an equally powerful tool for us now, as Walmart defines its place in a rapidly transforming retail environment. And we are currently using it to do the same for Sam’s Club.”

—Tony Rogers, Chief Marketing Officer, Walmart

“Since articulating our story framework, Gallo has had its best year. We’re up 10% and we’re outpacing the category. From a creative standpoint it’s been great because we’re all in alignment. Now that we have the articulation of our story, our social media, our partnerships, our programs, our packaging—it all makes sense.”

—Stephanie Gallo, Chief Marketing Officer, E&J Gallo Winery