The year was 1974: U.S. gasoline prices were high, inflation was rampant, and an unpopular Republican occupied the White House. McDonald's introduced a spirit-lifting jingle: "Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame-seed bun."
Now it is 2008, and McDonald's is reviving its tune. The company has asked U.S. consumers to write their own songs using the exact words of the jingle, and submit them to a contest on MySpace.com. The official reason is the 40th anniversary of the Big Mac, which is this year, but the then-and-now cultural similarities are not entirely lost on the company.
"That might be coincidental - unhappily, maybe, but coincidental," said Marlena Peleo-Lazar, chief creative officer for McDonald's USA. The contest, she said, was dreamed up in the spirit of summer fun and the hamburger's birthday. "Big Mac is just an iconic product for us, and it is a customer favorite," she said.
Of course, there are also huge differences between today's world and the one that existed when the jingle hit the air. In 1974, people were busy following the downfall of President Richard Nixon and tracking whether it was an "odd" day or an "even" day to buy gasoline, under a rationing system based on auto license plate numbers. Nobody had heard of a mash-up or a Web site.
But this is 2008, and the McDonald's venue of choice is a social networking site geared to people who were not yet born in 1974. Nevertheless, nearly 1,000 songs have been submitted, and judges have selected five finalists. The public has been invited to vote, and a winner will be announced Tuesday. In keeping with the austerity of today's economy, the winner won't get any cash, but his or her song will be featured in a U.S. commercial later this month.
hired by McDonald's, DDB Worldwide, created the video component, which is available on the MySpace contest site; users have been asked to provide only the soundtrack.
"We knew there were a lot of consumers out there that would remember the chant, but we also felt like the younger audience was familiar with it, and we wanted them to give us a contemporary version," said Jaime Guerrero, account director at Tribal DDB Worldwide in Chicago, part of the DDB Worldwide unit of Omnicom, which handled the online campaign.
People can still watch some of the vintage commercials on YouTube, one of which ends with the period catchphrase, "Far out!"
YouTube also features a few modern riffs on the jingle, but those videos have a bit less charm; in one example, a group of guys in a car rap the "Two all-beef patties" mantra into a McDonald's drive-through speaker box.
Among the official contest submissions on MySpace, the entries range from a yearning country song ("I wanna give to ya, two all-beef patties...") to rap ("Load up the homeys in the car, get the keys, now we're off on a Mickey D's run/I want two all-beef patties ..."). There are five genres of music that contestants can choose from; the majority of entries are hip-hop.
Quincy Alexander Mosley, a 21-year-old music producer from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, submitted a track to the R&B category called "SupaSize Dat." Although he is not a regular Big Mac eater, he said, he decided to enter the contest after hearing a radio ad; the idea for a his submission came after "a burst of inspiration."
McDonald's is not the only company glancing backward for inspiration. Klondike, the ice cream company, is using "What Would You Do for a Klondike Bar?" Citigroup has revived "Citi Never Sleeps," and Burger King wants you to "Have It Your Way" all over again.
"There's no doubt that all the consumer-confidence stuff is a little rocky these days, and we're all looking for a little bit of reassurance," said Kendra Gale, an assistant professor in journalism school at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "There's certainly something comforting about it."
For companies, reviving a campaign through user-generated submissions can appeal to nostalgic older consumers while introducing a classic campaign to a younger set.
There is a small risk that companies can seem out of touch by asking the MySpace generation to play with the taglines of their parents, or even grandparents.
"That's the biggest paradox to me," said William Jurewicz, the chief executive of space150, a digital-marketing agency in Minneapolis that is not involved with the McDonald's promotion. "They're going after a very young group with a very old jingle, and not necessarily correlating how cool and retro and throwback it was."
While McDonald's has brought back the "Two all-beef patties" line before, with advertisements in 1996 and 2003, and some international use, the "Big Mac Chant-Off" on MySpace is the first user-generated contest in the United States and "is much more expansive" than previous revivals, said Peleo-Lazar of McDonald's.
A creator of the jingle, Keith Reinhard, who directed the team at Needham, Harper & Steers that made the original campaign, said he was "thrilled" by its return.
The concept was born of "exasperation," said Reinhard, chairman emeritus of DDB Worldwide. His agency had wanted to use a parody of the song "One" from "A Chorus Line" to promote the burger, but McDonald's insisted that the ingredients of the Big Mac be listed in the ad.
One night in Reinhard's office, the team scrawled the ingredients on an easel.
His partner, Dan Nichols, "had his guitar with him at all times," Reinhard said. "And I suggested, because music is a great mnemonic, I said, remember how we told our kids to learn the ABCs with sort of a dumb tuneless chant?"
He continued, "And Dan Nichols - this is my very clear recollection - he's looking at the easel and he plays on his guitar: 'Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame-seed bun.' And that was it. The rest was history."
In the current contest, McDonald's insists that the jingle be reproduced in full and the ingredients named in the correct order. In other requirements, the songs must be free of violence, say nothing disparaging about McDonald's, and make no mention of illegal activity.
The results range from the ear-piercing to good enough to play on the radio. Because the entire phrase must be repeated, many entries sound similar.
"When you sign onto this, you take the bad with the good," said Peleo-Lazar. "But we thought being really relevant and interesting outweighed the risk."