NO DOUBT YOU noticed the most recent outbreak of innovative billboard ads colonizing roadside space around the Twin Cities. I'm talking about those black & white snapshots of "real kids" caught in close-up reactions to "real life" situations. There's one outside my window: a cute little boy, head tilted sideways, one eye squeezed shut, the other directed with laser intensity at something unseen.

As emotional maps, these billboard faces were at first difficult to decipher; for several weeks after their unveiling, the lack of text, or any reference to a product or business, only compounded the mystery. Greater metro-area commuters and pedestrians were dumfounded: Who are these kids? Where did they come from, and why? My first theory was simple: A mediocre public art project backed by a sappy philanthropist. Certainly, all the ingredients--subtle social awareness, social realism--were present. Then I glimpsed the fine-print copywrite in the bottom left corner: McDonald's Corp., 1996.

Now I had to revise my theory. This was the fast food giant's latest ad campaign posing as public art--a variation on the anti-advertising trend that sneakily sells products to those skeptical of advertising. Usually such ads play up an attractive idea like rebellion or family-values while downplaying the product itself. That these McDonald's ads were playing up youthful exuberance was not extraordinary. But downplaying the product into oblivion? This was extreme, I thought, a new frontier for the free market. Perhaps McDonald's considered itself so entwined with childhood reality that simply suggesting that state of being would inspire folks to purchase more McFood. A brilliant move by a normally predictable multinational beast.

Of course, one day, like a magic act in reverse, words appeared on those billboards. I felt duped and deflated by this prolonged tease and a banner announcing such slogans as: "Spinach. Cauliflower. Now Arch Deluxe." And off to the side, a new-fangled version of the McDonald's logo along with the slogan: "It's the burger with the grown-up taste." I've since been turned on to the accompanying TV and radio commercials which offer an even more overt explanation: Adults should eat these fancy new burgers because kids hate them.

This poses a challenge to kids, most of whom think having an adult's power and status would be pretty cool. So my final theory is that this ad campaign actually targets children (especially the inner child of every adult) who know they're not ready for "the grown-up taste," and therefore crave it all the more. Parents have always used this nasty tactic: "Big boys and girls eat all their vegetables." Except in this case the parent is an omnipotent corporation, and the veggies are beef patties dressed to kill. (S.P. Healy)

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