Ronald McDonald recruits a new posse

March 29, 2005
Globe and Mail
By Keith McArthur

Eminem and 50 Cent could soon have a new lyrical weapon to add to their arsenal: the Big Mac.

McDonald's in the United States wants hip-hop artists to rap about the burger — and is willing to pay them if they write it into their songs.

It's the latest twist on paid product placement as marketers look for new ways to reach teenagers who are turning away from television and spending more time with video games, the Internet and music.

"It's an extension of a long movement. People have paid for their brand names to be in movies and in television and in books . . . so why not in songs? It's the next logical move," said Alan Middleton, marketing professor at York University's Schulich School of Business.

McDonald's won't say exactly how the program works and what it pays, citing competitive reasons.

But Maven Strategies, the company McDonald's hired to negotiate its hip-hop deals, says the program will be similar to one it ran for Seagram's Gin.

That program saw hip-hop artists paid $1 to $5 (U.S.) every time a branded song was played on any radio station in the United States. The fee depended on how prominently the brand was used in the song.

One of those songs, Freek-a-leek by Petey Pablo became a top hip-hop song last year. That song includes the lyrics: "Now I got to give a shout out to Seagram's Gin, cause I'm drinkin' it and they payin' me for it."

McDonald's spokesman Walt Rider said the company wants to connect with young customers in "relevant, culturally significant ways." He said McDonald's will have final approval over any lyrics incorporating the Big Mac brand to ensure that it is done in an "appropriate setting."

(A spokesman for McDonald's Restaurants of Canada said the company is not looking at introducing the program in Canada.)

Hip hop has become the fastest growing genre of music in the United States, and dominates the play lists of Top 40 radio stations.

Hip-hop artists have a long history of mentioning products in their music — especially luxury brands such as Cristal Champagne and Mercedes-Benz. Occasionally, they would be rewarded by the manufacturer with crates of booze or other products as a "thank you."

"What we've seen in the past is that a lot of the hip-hop artists and their managers and the record labels have really done a good job of creating relationships with a lot of different corporations, . . ." said Tony Rome, president and chief executive officer of Maven Strategies.

Agenda Inc., a San Francisco company that advises clients on the interaction between brands and culture, publishes an annual list of the brands most often mentioned on songs in the Billboard Top 20. About 95 per cent of those mentions come from hip hop.

The most frequently mentioned brands last year were Cadillac, (70 times) Hennessey (69), Mercedes (63), Rolls-Royce (62), and Gucci (49).

Lucian James, president of Agenda, said he's not convinced that paying hip-hop artists to rap about the Big Mac will work. He said the demographic McDonald's is trying to reach is marketing savvy. They will know the mentions are paid product placements, he said, which makes them less effective.

"It's a little counter-intuitive for me, because I guess what McDonald's is trying to do with this is gain authenticity among their target audience. But . . . the way they're going about it in itself isn't that authentic," he said.

McDonald's received one mention last year in a Top 20 song: Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous by Good Charlotte. Those lyrics — "and did you know if you were caught and you were smoking crack McDonalds wouldn't even want to take it back" — aren't likely the sort that McDonald's would pay for.