I won’t say that we as South Africans are obsessed with American culture, but I reckon that we mostly underestimate or are unaware of the degree to which we have been influenced by the land of the stars and stripes. We wear the brands from head to toe, we drink the drinks, we listen to their music, watch their movies and we consume their take-aways by the tonnes without getting American-obese (for the most part). Every single day.
We just make it part of our own interwoven cultures by adding our own flair to it: a “Yebo!” here, an “otherwise, you alright boet?” there or a “ek fokken bliksem jou!” anywhere in-between. We don’t overly obsess over the new releases of the latest Star Wars movie or Apple product like the Americans do because we don’t sleep in tents in front of outlets in order to be that first customer or break down a Makro (owned by Walmart, nê?) on Black Friday. When we pull moves like that, the reason has to be a pandemic on a global scale and we panic-shop for a few hours, buying all the wrong stuff.
But every two decades or so, Amerika walks past with a juicy carrot on a stick and we all turn into donkeys. Such was the case back in 1995 when McDonald’s opened its very first branch on the 11th of November on Beyers Naude drive in Randburg.
If you think the coronavirus queues were bad at your local grocer before lockdown, you should have seen the rows and rows of people waiting for their Big Macs. Luckily, South Africa had queue-training the year before with our first democratic elections. The McDonald’s inaugural celebration had Harley Davidsons to help celebrate the American side and Zulu dancers taking care of the South African end of things. Things eventually returned to normal but the enthusiasm and the hunger for this American brand never really faded.
Did you know?
Back home, our own President Cyril Ramaphosa was even the local big boss at Mickey D’s for a number of years before he sold it in 2016 to focus on politics.
I have always been fascinated by this brand and especially how they operate and market themselves. How can one not be? They are, after all, the biggest restaurant business on Earth with a very humble beginning. I urge you to watch The Founder on Showmax (available until 30 April 2020), which follows the unbelievable journey of how Ray Kroc (a milkshake machine salesman, portrayed by the very talented and accomplished Michael Keaton) turned two McDonald brothers’ fast food eatery in San Bernardino, California, into the mammoth that it is today.
Richard and Maurice McDonald wanted to keep the family restaurant business small and manageable but Kroc pitched his vision of franchising with emphasis on “Crosses. Flags. Arches” (this speech is a highlight of the movie, and marks a pivotal moment). The film does an excellent job of truly capturing the essence of an important era and gives an intelligently toned-down historical view of ambition, persistence and ruthlessness. It takes you all the way back to the mid-50s and right to the heart of what it meant to strive to live for the American Dream.
I really didn’t think any docuseries would beat that documentary about Jack Parow and his tigers in 2020, but I was proven wrong and Rotten Tomatoes totally agrees with me!
McDonald’s kept powering on through the decades and, as mentioned earlier, landed on South African shores in the mid-90s. They had phenomenal marketing strategies, with billions in sales conversions. You might be most familiar with the Happy Meals and the cute toys that accompany them, but a decade before we even knew what those burgers smelled like, McDonalds rolled out their single most successful marketing campaign to date: the McDonald’s Monopoly Game.
You probably know the mechanics of Monopoly, so I don’t have to explain that to you but the promotion itself basically came down to the chance of a lucky person walking out of McDonald’s $1-million richer instead of just with a burger and some fries.
Now, here is the most surprising part – this promotion also yielded the biggest scam ever in the history of fast food because organised crime managed to net $24-million worth of illegal profits! The scam ran between 1989 and 2001, and I only found out about it in 2020 because I discovered the brand-new six part documentary, McMillion$, on Showmax this week!
I really didn’t think any docuseries would beat that documentary about Jack Parow and his tigers in 2020, but I was proven wrong and Rotten Tomatoes totally agrees with me! McMillion$ tells the story of an ingenious fraud where lottery prizes awarded by McDonald’s kept ending up in the wrong hands for longer than it should have.
This doccie would probably have made as good a movie as The Founder, but I am glad that it was rather presented as a series because there are just too many bases to cover. What gives it more gravitas is the fact that it was produced by Mark Wahlberg and Emmy-nominated Ballers producer, Stephen Levinson.
Also, it was distributed by HBO and we’ve had that little conversation before. What is astounding to me about McMillion$ is how mobsterism and gangsterism effortlessly camouflages a twisted version of philanthropy when it comes to the people who pulled off this scam. A gangster pretending to care is almost worse than gangsters who don’t care at all, and don’t bother to hide it.
This documentary seems to be freewheeling an unconventional style and it feels as if directors James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte threw much of the structure and control of a conventional documentary to the wind, but in the best possible way.
Some people, for instance, seem to confuse the overly excited tone and demeanour of the FBI agents with gloating and self-importance, where I found it quite refreshing. How would you tell the story if you had to be part of a team who finally cracked such a big case?
Doug Matthews, one of the FBI agents who was instrumental in solving this puzzle, is quite the character. Yes, he gets a bit cocky and excited at times, but he is quite funny and charming, too.
Every episode ends on a cliff-hanger and you might find yourself wondering about the precise mechanics of the deception itself. How the hell did they pull this off? When are they going to tell us??!
Hang on till the last episode, where all will be revealed.