Originally published for Eater on May 3 2022.
Three decades before anyone had ever heard of a Cactus Jack or an Astroworld, everyone wanted to Be Like Mike, and the endorsements for basketball supernova Michael Jordan came swift and heavy. The six-time NBA champion became one of the most marketed sports figures in history — starring in nearly 100 commercials by 2003 — with product deals ranging from his eponymous Air Jordan at Nike to Gatorade.
Jordan’s business choices had long been a massive cultural presence, but his 1990 partnership with McDonald’s brought in a new vanguard during a time when basketball and Black culture were becoming increasingly intertwined. En route to his first NBA championship, Jordan had established a reputation for dining at the eatery every morning for breakfast, and so the chain fashioned a burger named the McJordan after him, the first custom-issue branded meal of its kind: a Quarter Pounder with cheese, smoked bacon, and barbecue sauce. Initially, the sandwich was intended to be a monthlong limited release in select Chicago franchises, appealing to hometown Bulls fans. The overwhelmingly positive response, however, prompted an extension of the offering, branching out to Jordan’s home state and college stomping grounds of North Carolina and a few other states; the promotion ultimately ran from March 1991 to 1993.
As we moved deeper into the ’90s, the dominant cultural cache arguably turned away from sports stars and more toward musicians, particularly those connected to hip-hop and R&B. After the success of cultural curators such as Fab 5 Freddy in connecting uptown hip-hop and graffiti culture with the downtown club kids and tastemakers, and the capitalist triumph of Run-DMC’s Adidas endorsement in the ’80s helping to launch the group into the mainstream, it quickly became clear that the hip-hop industry was a ripe demographic for marketing and collaboration. Music executive Steve Stoute affirmed this trajectory in his book The Tanning of America: How Hip-Hop Created a Culture That Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy. “If really smart corporate executives had wanted to save money on all that market research about what the next new thing was going to be,” Stoute wrote, “they would only have had to turn to the hip-hop community — who were doing the research anyway, selecting trends that looked promising, creating overnight word-of-mouth promotion, and even adding their own product development ideas.”
The apex by the early aughts was the introduction of a new McDonald’s slogan and subsequent jingle that has held sustained global cultural resonance — ba-da-ba-ba-baaaa, I’m lovin’ it — with the assistance of Justin Timberlake, the Neptunes, and Pusha T. In his book, Stoute described the process of writing the jingle as “reverse engineering.” The approach was simple — presented with a skeleton jingle arranged by German ad agency Heye & Partner in collaboration with the music production company Mona Davis, the Neptunes produced a full-length single for Justin Timberlake, intending to penetrate the pop culture market with the slogan before publicly associating it with the McDonald’s brand. The track “leaked” to the public in August 2003, with a subsequent music video shot by Paul Hunter, who had also done “Señorita”; publicly, it was speculated that the song would be on Timberlake’s second album. On September 23, 2003, McDonald’s announced the launch of the global “I’m Lovin’ It” brand campaign, which included five new commercials globally, production from the Neptunes, vocals from the Clipse (Pusha T’s rap duo with his brother No Malice), and Justin Timberlake’s brand partnership.
The ”I’m Lovin’ It” brand campaign, essentially an “audio logo” that helped pull the enterprise out of a six-quarter slump, is McDonald’s longest-running marketing campaign to date. In attempts to build brand relatability, McDonald’s engaged in the tried-and-true tradition of “racial capitalism” — a historically and predominantly white corporation (at the executive level) deriving both social cachet and economic value from associating with Black and other nonwhite communities that had long found community within the world of hip-hop. Throughout the 2000s, McDonald’s would continue to revisit that well and expand its reach into urban demographics, picking subsequent brand partnerships with artists like Beyoncé Knowles’s original girl group Destiny’s Child, which filmed a commercial for McDonald’s in 2005 (McD’s also sponsored their tour).
Different pieces of the template would attempt to be replicated at other chains, to mixed results. Mary J. Blige’s 2012 partnership with Burger King, featuring a cover of her song “Don’t Mind” remixed to highlight the new Crispy Chicken Wrap product, was a highly contentious campaign and was ultimately pulled. Earlier this spring, Pusha T released a McDonald’s “diss track” for an Arby’s commercial, laden with insider references that maximize the impact for the most culturally attuned within his fan base: a jab at the 2003 Justin Timberlake campaign with “I’m the reason
the whole world love it”as the opening line, a curated bar from Jay-Z’s classic album The Blueprint, and a not-so-thinly-veiled narcotic double entendre as a coda to the verse from the King of High Fashion Diet Coke Rap. Melody gimmicks of this sort still persist:In 2018, Wendy’s created a whole mixtape that became a viral sensation and topped the streaming charts. More recently, Doja Cat was under contract to provide a jingle for Taco Bell on TikTok, a commitment she delivered with less than enthusiastic aplomb.
But recent years have seen a flurry of artists teaming with fast-food brands: BTS, J Balvín, Mariah Carey, and Saweetie, who is perhaps the queen of the unconventional palate, all launched custom meals at McDonald’s. Megan thee Stallion went into a fast-food partnership of her own with Popeye’s; Doja Cat, with Taco Bell. They all follow in the footsteps of Houston rapper Travis Scott, whose McDonald’s sponsorship netted him up to $20 million: He was paid $5 million up front for the meal and original endorsement, but when the meal quickly became a TikTok trend and merchandise sold out, Scott made an additional $15 million in revenue from merch sales.
It’s easy to see why artists are signing onto these sponsorships, which are more configurable than showing up in a commercial or singing a jingle. And leaning way in can be more lucrative. As streaming — and the subsequent shift in compensation scales — became increasingly ubiquitous in the 21st century, direct music partnerships became less and less beneficial for the artist. The one-off payout for jingle writing is subject to the whims of a company and the perception of an artist’s negotiating power, with limited possibility for recourse. Timberlake made an estimated $6 million from what would end up being McDonald’s most significant investment in its marketing strategy to date; Pusha T has alleged that he and his brother received a one-time lump sum of “half a million or a million,” though he’s continued to work behind the scenes in the world of fast-food jingles, also receiving credits for the Arby’s slogan “We Have the Meats.” The evolution of music publishing toward digital-service providers (now at $13.4 billion, or 62.1 percent of global recorded music revenue) compelled many artists to build their verticals out as fully marketable brands. In the past, these deals may have been perceived by fellow entertainers as gauche or overly commercial, but now they’re bids to survive the compensatory pittances of streaming revenues and commonly accepted exploitative standards in recording contracts. Where artists once reserved their sponsorship appearances for ad campaigns in foreign markets or fees for a feature verse on an international artist’s track, that’s no longer the case. And companies like McDonald’s can maintain an urban presence by creating original melodies at a much lower rate.
These new deals are constructed as brand extensions between chain and artist, in which the artist is essentially a special-purpose vehicle partaking in part of the risk, part of the design, and ultimately part of the equity profits McDonald’s launched a J. Balvin meal in October 2020 with a planned merchandise line pairing that was canceled and refunded due to production challenges. K-Pop supergroup BTS, who are known for having some of the most loyal fans this side of the solar system, launched a meal that ended up outpacing Scott’s in popularity, pairing their rollout with a merchandise drop and in-app content for a global fan base. Not to be outdone, their “Butter” co-artist, rapper Megan thee Stallion, went into a fast-food partnership of her own with Popeye’s, which had previously created a controversial craze over its chicken sandwich at the expense of its employees; the self-proclaimed “H-Town Hottie” would not only be releasing her own twist on the same sandwich, but also her own “hottie” sauce, a merchandise line, and ownership of up to five Popeyes franchises.
While the size of these endorsement contracts may seem colossal, the perceived benefits for the fast-food industry — chief among them being a diversion for coordinated lobbying against the ongoing labor fights for service workers across the nation — make the gargantuan investments worth it. Since 2012, the restaurant industry has been at odds with an uprising of service-class workers that would ultimately turn into the Fight for 15. Companies such as McDonald’s were facing accountability in the press for lobbying with the National Restaurant Association to stave off efforts to raise the wage floor, persuading the Trump administration against paid sick leave at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and not providing employees adequate access to PPE, leading to countrywide strikes against the world’s second-largest private employer. By the time George Floyd became a national name, any messaging that McDonald’s tried to put out in solidarity was met with open revulsion: Do Black lives matter when they work in your restaurants? McDonald’s U.S. president Joe Erlinger published an open letter on LinkedIn, claiming to “recognize the impact” recent events had; the company would go on to donate $1 million to the National Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In the midst of the horrors of the political administration, the backdrop of ongoing police violence and racial trauma, and a rising working-class movement, the fast-food industry turned to musicians for support.
Prior to the calamity of Astroworld 2021, which has rendered Travis Scott a commercial liability, Scott served as a perfect vehicle for a PR rebound for McDonald’s. The “Sicko Mode” rapper’s entire approach to engaging with his fan base is not just musical, but an experiential consumption of derivative works; a sentimental connection built out of a desire to lose yourself in the overstimulating roller-coaster ride of his persona, musical journey, and accouterments to match, from the merchandise bundle sales (leading to a highly publicized number 1 dispute with Nicki Minaj) to a Ferris wheel on stage. To engage in the Travis Scott experience, in McDonald’s, or anywhere else is to take another step in making a parasocial relationship as a fan just that much more tactile, no matter how scripted or transactional the circumstances around the product may be. The promotional commercial of the Travis Scott meal is a reflection of as much; a nostalgic allusion to the Happy Meal Toys of his childhood conflated with his quasi-avatar rendering, a version of himself that has existed in digital mediums such as Fortnite.
Branded collabs are a powerful public relations tool. They empower the cult of celebrity to serve as a distraction for ongoing operational issues, and they extend the artists’ fan base and demographic as evangelists for a product by default. Given the logistical supply-chain issues that have plagued the COVID-19 pandemic, the craze behind the promotional collaborations also offers a bit of breathing room: McDonald’s can streamline menus for thousands of Quarter Pounders with bacon and fries with barbecue sauce as it works to attend to ingredient backlogs.
All of these outcomes are great optics for fast-food corporations, thus repeatedly justifying the seven-figure price tags for the celebrity engagements. But it should also be stressed that these are only symbolic reparative acts, deemed an easier accommodation than capitulating to the quality-of-life requests made of their tens of thousands of Black and brown employees. It’s easier to feign inclusion via consumption versus establishing a firm commitment to change; that is a level of accountability that has proved to be as evasive as the Hamburglar.