Teaching Speciesism: The McDonald’s Talking Fish schools Consumers on Complicit Complacency

August 30, 2009 - animal rights / anthropology / capitalism / food / spiritual rights / vegan


The McDonald’s “Talking Filet-O-Fish” commercial opens with a wide shot of a garage. A heavy, bearded man sits with a McDonald’s bag and drink on the table in front of him. He seems comfortable, content, and average as he holds a sandwich in his hand. When he takes a bite of the sandwich the shot cuts to a close up of a taxidermy fish mounted on a wooden plaque on the wall. The fish bends in half, making an hyperbolic mechanical sound, and looks right at the camera as it begins to sing:

“Gimme back that Filet-O-Fish.
Gimme that fish!”

As the fish continues, the camera cuts to back to the man who is shown bobbing his head with the tune and chewing on the sandwich. He is sitting on a weight lifting bench next to a motorcycle. The fish continues singing:

“Gimme back that Filet-O-Fish.
Gimme me that fish!”

Another man walks into the garage carrying a drill – perhaps returning it to his friend. He stops and looks with astonishment at the fish and then at his friend sitting on the bench eating the sandwich. The fish continues to sing:

“What if it were you hanging up on this wall?
If it were you in that sandwich,
you wouldn’t be laughing at all!”

Just as the fish sings, “If it were you in that sandwich,” the camera cuts to the man chewing. He looks at his friend and shrugs his shoulders. The camera cuts to a close up of the sandwich, a very small, plain looking “bun” contains a fried brown rectangle, a small corner of shiny “cheese” peeks out from two places and a few blobs of “tartar sauce” from the other sides. A narrator offers the viewer a suggestion: “Why not get your own crispy, golden Filet-O-Fish, especially now when you can get one with medium fries and an ice cold soft-drink for just three-ninety-nine.” During the narration of this offer, we’re shown close-ups of hands pulling French fries out of a McDonald’s container and dark brown fizzy soda pouring over a cup full of ice.

Most of this ad doesn’t display the product, the sandwich, and instead makes the unexpected admission that if the situation were reversed and the man had been killed to make a sandwich (or a wall mount), he wouldn’t find it all so amusing. The ad is full of symbolic references to masculinity; the weight bench, the beard, drill and a garage set up as a workshop. The man is seated on a weight bench, next to a motorcycle, but he is overweight and eating a sandwich from McDonald’s; something that is likely to only increase his obesity. He is surrounded by the accouterment of masculinity, his power doesn’t come from these tools, but from his decision to reward himself by enjoying this sandwich. He laughs and shrugs his shoulders at the mechanical fish who asks him to consider the plight of the dead animal he is consuming and by doing so he asserts his dominance over every other creature on earth. In the end, the ad suggests, it is your privilege to forget and enjoy even if you know the truth about where a product comes from.

In an article on the cult status the advertisement has achieved via sharing on YouTube, a journalist writes “They also needed a fish that wouldn’t put people off. A Los Angeles taxidermist created a pollock with a remote control device to operate his mouth and tail. The sandwich is made with cod as well as pollock, but that fish looked too scary” (Howard 2009). The senior copy writer at the agency who produced the ad, Peter Harvey, explains “We said, ‘Let’s make it a little more toy-like so it won’t scare people completely’” (Howard 2009). The terror of coming face to face with the creature that is being consumed is buffered by employing a more toy-like fish. The ad serves to mystify the process of production that results in these millions of inexpensive “fish sandwiches” at McDonald’s branches across the world.

Fast food advertising traditionally attempts to divorce the food from the animal and factory farm source and make it seem as though it had grown on trees (quite literally in the case of past McDonald’s efforts which have included artificial trees with plastic hamburgers growing on them in children’s play areas). In this case, however, McDonald’s alludes to the true source of the sandwich, fishing (massive, destructive overfishing in fact), but then turns the idea into a dark comedy, asking the viewer to laugh off the absurdity of how a complex organism like a fish (in this case an intelligent, singing one) could have become the “delicious” friend brown rectangle they are pushing into their mouths.

Works Referenced

Howard, Theresa. 2009. McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish ad makes a big splash. USA Today. April 5, 2009. Retrieved on May 16, 2009 from: http://www.usatoday.com/money/advertising/adtrack/2009-04-05-mcdonalds-singing-fish-ad_N.htm