The Sign of the Burger: McDonald’s and the Culture of Power reveals the secrets, strategies, history, and significance of the McDonald’s enterprise in the United States and the rest of the world. Using a cultural studies framework for his analysis, Joe L. Kincheloe offers a multifaceted view of McDonald’s, the "Golden Arches," from the impact on people’ lives, as a global cultural signifier, and as a corporation viewed as ranging from an exploitative company to a target for antiglobalization activists. Kincheloe ultimately tries to answer the question: "Why is McDonald’s a lightning rod for debate and discussion, an object of fascination, evoking strong feelings and emotions in the United States and around the world?" (p. 7).
The book includes a review of previous studies on this topic, like George Ritzer’s McDonaldization of Society (1993) and John Watson’s Golden Arches East: McDonald’s in East Asia (1997). However, the study is more than a mere addition to the ongoing conversation about the influence of McDonald’s; instead, it presents a new layer by bringing sociological, economic, and educational perspectives into the discussion. The analysis is framed within the critical cultural studies perspective that not only focuses on McDonald’s as a cultural signifier, but also unveils the power dynamics underneath.
It is remarkably important to connect Kincheloe’s study with the modernity and postmodernity debate. Unlike other books, Kincheloe does not use inaccessible jargon. The author instead shows an uncommon willingness to make sure that the reader is able to access and follow his arguments throughout, including definitions for concepts like modernism and postmodernism in the introduction. Methodologically, The Sign of the Burger is the result of more than ten years of data collection through what the author calls "interview-based research as a form of improvisational ethnography" (p. 17), which includes a variety of techniques from content analysis to historiography and rhetorical analysis.
The book is divided into six chapters, each one covering different aspects of the Golden Arches’ meaning and trajectory. The first chapter opens with the author’s personal journey "as a boy growing up in the rural mountains of East Tennessee"(p. 20), who discovers that McDonald’s represents an open door to modernity. From this personal perspective, the author moves to articulate an important critique of some liberals: that the discourse of their criticisms and denouncement of working conditions is elitist and condescending toward fast-food company workers. In chapter two, Kincheloe analyzes the role of McDonald’s as a producer of the ideology of a worldwide corporation. He points out all the aspects of the ideological process: creating a world that satisfies and offers freedom to the consumers, hiding racial injustice, and disguising class inequality. The conception of the Golden Arches as ideological machinery is completed with a reflection on McDonald’s as a fast-food company that contributes to labor exploitation. Obviously, as a capitalist enterprise, McDonald’s serves the ideology of those in power at the expense of the less powerful.
In chapter three, taking postmodern theory as a frame, the McDonald’s presence in hyperreality — referring not to the reality itself but to the representation of it — and the media is critically analyzed. The Golden Arches have become a signifier that goes beyond the representation of a fast-food company; they have become a cultural symbol with strong subliminal effects. Along similar lines, chapter four is dedicated to the role of the Golden Arches as public educator, or, in other words, the role that McDonald’s has played in support of a market-oriented society. Kincheloe eloquently refers to the curriculum of consumption to describe the clear agenda of the company. In chapter five, Kincheloe points out the strategies used by the company to maintain its popularity and educational role; that is, by becoming associated with socially accepted values like family, idealized views of the past and of home. In the last chapter, Kincheloe reviews the history of McDonald’s marketing campaigns. It is clear throughout the study that the clientele par excellence are the younger ones, who unconditionally follow the company’s innovations and become the most faithful consumers.
In a very personalized tone, The Sign of the Burger reveals the parallels found between the history of this enterprise, the American way of life, and how this phenomenon has made it overseas: from the entrance of women into the labor market and their need to stop by a fast-food restaurant to grab something for their families to eat, to its presence in many parts of the world. Kincheloe leaves us with an encouraging message: "This hegemonic, ideological, semiotic, and pedagogical dynamic may be complex, but people can understand it when it is explained to them in an accessible manner" (p. 213). This book undoubtedly does a great job of making this highly critical analysis accessible for all. It asks readers to critically examine elements present in our everyday lives, like McDonald’s. Kincheloe’s study is a crucial tool for educators who are desperately seeking new educational resources that promote critical thinking, not only for themselves, but also for their students.