Aesthetic or Anaesthetic?

“The Big Meal” was an advertising campaign launched by McDonald’s in 1971.

Big Meal

The Big Meal” (McDonald’s, 1971)

The poster shows a metal tray holding a large-sized beef burger, a very generous portion of [French] fries, and a large cup drink. The tray is being presented by a smiling waiter. A card placed next to the food on the tray features the words “The Big Meal”.

The advert clearly intends to promote a tasty and nutritious meal which is obviously offered at an attractive price – indeed, the advert describes accordingly:

“Grab the Big Meal at McDonald’s. And you’ll have yourself a Big Mac, a very large order of fries and a great big drink. All of which should make your stomach very happy. Not to mention your wallet.”

Food is an absolute necessity of life, however eating together, sharing food and sharing time with family and friends, is culturally important to us – it is something that we enjoy and which is a cornerstone of family life, it is an important “social lubricant”. However, this advertising campaign would appear to subvert the desire for social eating by placing the emphasis on selfish eating – a large meal to be consumed presumably alone, there is no mention of a bargain meal for the family, because “you deserve a break today”.

So, devoid of any reference whatsoever to social dining, the intended audience would appear to be those with some disposable income who are attracted to eating in a fast food environment, quite possibly accustomed to eating alone, and also quite possibly time poor.

Was this advertising campaign successful?

Yes, undoubtedly so. Not least of all because this and similar adverts appeal to a fundamental instinct at a time when we are vulnerable, in other words, when we are hungry.

Fast food companies invest huge amounts in advertising, including research and development for the most effective way to design adverts – they are well aware that we “eat with our eyes”.

Perhaps this was the start of the obesity crisis in the Western world – a fast food company prompting, urging, cajoling, manipulating us to “go large”.

Sischy informs us that “the photographs that have made Salgado’s reputation also have punch, but it comes from the pathos of the lives of his subjects” (Sischy, 1991). Whilst I actually find this an extremely patronising and condescending point of view, perhaps largely due to the way in which the point of view is expressed, it may have some foundation and seems to connect quite well with the “hypodermic syringe” theory which suggests that an adverts audience sleepwalks into yielding to the will of the advertisers.

And this is not something that is limited to a specific era – a decade upon decade McDonald’s staple offering is “The Big Mac”, with a more recent and extremely popular offering being the “Big Tasty”.

Nor is the insistence that we succumb to “upselling” unique to McDonald’s with other fast food chains also promoting large size meals.

They all want us to go large. And invariably we are obliging … …

So, how does this relate to my photographic practice?

I think it is extremely relevant because, as photographers we have a duty to act responsibly – we need to be aware of the various ways that different audiences may interpret our work, and the consequences associated with these interpretations: could it have been foreseen in 1971, for example, that “The Big Meal” campaign might act as a catalyst for what is now our obesity crisis?

We should question what we are doing, and why, and how to ensure we are working in an ethical way. And we should be aware that the way in which images are interpreted may not be the way that we as photographers intended.



Sischy, Ingrid (1991) ‘Good Intentions’ in The New Yorker (9th September 1991) (Online). Available at: (Accessed: Wednesday 29 March 2017)

3 thoughts on “Aesthetic or Anaesthetic?

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