If you have ever stepped into a McDonald’s recently, I’m sure that you couldn’t help but notice that the restaurant doesn’t look quite like how you remember it looking as a kid. Sure, every restaurant chain goes through aesthetic changes over the years, in order to keep up with the culture and the consumer. However, McDonald’s seems to have taken those changes a step further. Gone are the McDonald’s of our childhoods— the place that seemed equal parts fast food restaurant and amusement park. Instead, the restaurant is going for a more ‘modernist nightmare’ look: swapping out the plastic slides for self service kiosks and trading the ball pits in for contemporary Big Mac art. The reasons for this shift are both external and internal, as the brand tries to respond to both the changing culture, and a brand new generation of children— one that seems far less interested in the entertainment options that placated the generations that came before it. As McDonald’s tries to remain profitable in a market that is oversaturated with fast food options, they have had no choice but to adapt to the times, and thus, leave behind the nostalgic charms of the past.
In 2004, Morgan Spurlock’s documentary film Super Size Me shocked the nation and exposed the terrifying side effects of fast food. The film followed Spurlock as he attempted to eat McDonald’s for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, every day of the week. The film emerged during a pivotal turning point in American eating habits. It was the early 2000s, a time when we were reaping the consequences of the fast food craze of the 90s. Suddenly, America was facing an obesity epidemic of massive proportions. Our eating habits were hurting ourselves, and our children. People were mad, and Spurlock gave us public enemy number one— McDonald’s. Suddenly, Ronald McDonald seemed to have ulterior motives, and his play places seemed merely like traps put in place to ensnare a new generation of food-a-holics.
So what do you do as a brand when you are blamed for the high blood pressure and heart problems of a generation? You learn how to adapt to the complaints of the consumer. The first McDonald’s play place opened in 1972, according to Eater.com, and it was branded as a vague fantasyland— complete with its own set of characters to go along with it. The brand was hoping to provide a special atmosphere for the juvenile patrons of the restaurant, one that would make them come back as adults hoping to capture the nostalgia of their childhood. However, this plan may have worked a little too well, as those children grew up into Big Mac lovin’ adults who produced Big Mac lovin’ kids, who later became part of the biggest generation in history— Millennials.
Now, as more than 70% of Millennials are considered over-weight or obese, they have shifted their eating habits away from the highly-caloric fast food options of the past, and have embraced new chains that have their health in mind— swapping the burger for a salad, essentially. Millennials still believe that time is of the essence, but now, when they’re looking for a quick bite, they have the option of making it under 1000 calories. McDonald’s seems to recognize this, and has attempted to mold their interiors to replicate these new fast food chains. Now, when you go into a McDonald’s it feels more like a Chipotle or a Bolay than a hamburger place. The bright-red booths have been swapped for minimalist chairs, and the restaurant is decorated with contemporary paintings of their products. It would be difficult to find Ronald McDonald or any of his friends there.
But aside from the obesity epidemic, there are other factors that go into these aesthetic changes. The truth of the matter is that children today simply do not play together in the way that their parents and grandparents did. With so many entertainment options, the new generation of children finds it hard to rip their eyes away from the screen long enough to slide down a pink, antique slide that always seems to smell like grease for some reason. And while we are on the subject, the overall cleanliness of play-places has been a subject of concern for many years— and particularly in the wake of the coronavirus. Suddenly, people are waking up to the idea that a place that smells like feet and grease may not be the cleanest place to send your child. I think that we all knew this, deep down, but as long as it was out of sight it was also out of mind. Unfortunately though it is now very much in sight, and very much in our minds.
So due to all of these factors, the McDonald’s of the future is doomed to look like a corporate waiting room that happens to sell hamburgers. This is the product of the times, and is both a consequence and a benefit of modernity. We understand now that it may not be great to market hamburgers to impressionable children. However, even if we didn’t, our children are likely to never feel the same joy that we felt when our parents told us that we were going to McDonald’s. Afterall, who needs a ball pit when you have an iPad?