McDonalds-Oatmeal-Commercial-Girl-300x122Have you seen the recent McDonald’s Ad for their Fruit and Maple Oatmeal?

It features a woman who sits down next to her husband, babbling away about the delicious oatmeal she bought.  As she sits down, she remains focused on the oatmeal and never really looks at her husband until after she offers him a spoonful.

Then — surprise! — the man she’s offering to spoon-feed isn’t her husband at all; he’s only dressed like her husband, and is, in fact, a socially awkward dweeb eating breakfast alone. That’s when the icky part happens.

As the woman recovers from her shock, with her extended spoon still hovering in front of the stranger, the social misfit puts his mouth around her spoon and eats the oatmeal.

And we all feel violated for her.

The woman, mortified beyond belief, drops that spoon like it was poison and recoils from the stranger, retreating to the safety of her husband. It’s meant to be funny, but comes off as deeply disturbing. Even after the husband’s “that’s actually how we met” joke makes light of the situation, most viewers remain disturbed and left feeling more than a little icky.

[****A reader helpfully left a youtube link to the commercial in the comments — thanks, Susie! The video captures has some weird overtape in the first few seconds of the commercial, but you can see all the important parts.  Check it out:***]

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But why?

Magical Thinking

goldenboughWhether we admit it or not, we all believe in essences.  Sure, our conscious minds might try to over-rule our emotional belief, but we still believe – we still have the same emotional reactions and make the same decisions as if we consciously believed in essences and cooties. This is why people shy away from cookies placed next to say, tampons or kitty litter, even when both the cookies and the kitty litter are safely wrapped in plastic and never actually touch each other.  It’s also why the billion dollar sports memorabilia industry even exists!

So when the woman in the ad started eating the oatmeal and stuck that spoon in her mouth, she imbued it with some of her essence.  And by eating from that same spoon the stranger not only exposed himself to her germs, but on an emotional level, he enacted a violation — a stolen intimacy with the woman, made against her will. He took some of her essence, and in turn, intermingled his essence with hers, contaminating her spoon.

This is one reason why the woman immediately ditches the spoon — she doesn’t want his essence creeping up the spoon to her hand — and also why she recoils in disgust at the man’s actions.  For any man who fails to recognize that kind of transgression is dangerous, almost sociopathic.

It all makes perfect emotional sense. And if you think I’m spinning off into English Major la la land, just ask yourself:

  • Would you buy furniture from a convicted child molester, even if it was sold for pennies on the dollar? Why not?
  • Would you be upset if you knew that an old bed you had sold in a yard sale was bought by a child molester?
  • Would you give special treatment to some item (aka relic) that had belonged to one of your heroes?

If you answer, no, to the first two questions or, yes, to the third, then at least a part of you believe in essences.

Magical Advertising

So what does this have to do with advertising?

The Laws of MagicBecause the decision-making part of our brains work according to the laws of Magical Thinking. Meaning that your advertising ought to at least be in harmony with those same laws, if not actively leveraging them to your benefit.

And, just so you know, the Law of Contagion/Essences is just one of about two dozen “Laws of Magic” that you’d probably want to keep in mind.

So does your advertising weave magic? Or are you violating these laws and inadvertently leaving your audience feeling icky all over?

P.S. One might say that McDonad’s oatmeal itself is a sign of magical thinking, wherein the mere contact with oats somehow imbues healthful qualities onto a snickers bar’s worth of sugar, chemicals, and saturated fat.


  1. Naomi Niles on 05.19.2011

    This is really interesting. Now I’m trying to figure out how to be more wholesome. I don’t really like oatmeal, so that could be an issue!

    Thanks, Jeff. You’ve always write excellent articles. I enjoy them mucho. 🙂

  2. Jeff on 05.19.2011

    Thanks so much, Naomi!

    I think that a lot of design principles reflect the same sort of mental processes as Magical Thinking.

    – Jeff

  3. Naomi Niles on 05.19.2011

    That’s true! I didn’t think about it that way. 😀

  4. Sarah Arrow on 05.20.2011

    Great post Jeff, I felt that woman’s distaste and recoil even though I have never seen the ad.

    I think the “essence” is the reason why we by brands, we want the sleekness of the brand to rub off on our selves, and sometimes it does. Even if it’s just moments.

    The PS – is that a typo or did you mean to call them McDonads?, that caught my eye and made me click through from the email of your post.

  5. Nick Stewart on 05.20.2011

    Fascinating. Do you have a link where I could watch the video of the McDonald’s commercial? I haven’t actually seen it but now I really want to.

  6. Jeff on 05.20.2011


    I really wish I had that link. In fact, if I had it, I’d have posted it or embedded it here. Couldn’t find it. But I’ve asked some friends with higher-end Tivos to try and record it for me and will post it when I get it.

    – Jeff

  7. susie@newdaynewlesson on 05.21.2011

    Here is the link to the commercial for other people like me who had to search for it:

    I think it was just the germ thing that bothered me. 🙂

  8. Jeff on 05.23.2011

    ***My friend and fellow copywriter Lorraine — check out her blog at — can’t get her computer/browser to play nice with my outdated and somewhat glitchy wordpress installation. So she sent me the following via e-mail and asked me to post it here for her. Thanks, Lorraine!***

    “Hi Jeff:

    Your blog still doesn’t like me. But I wanted to let you know I tried to post the following comment:

    Jeff, please DO spin off into English Major/symbolism. I think it’s totally relevant when discussing marketing where we need to understand human beings’ motivations, emotions, unconscious desires–and taboos.

    BTW, It’s delightful to see The Golden Bough on a copywriting bolg–but not surprising given it’s your copywriting blog. I love reading Frazer’s accounts of magic, ancient religious practices and ritual.

    Thanks for another fascinating post.”