The Turn(er)ing of a Page

"That meant going after the kids." An icon of 20th century storytelling died this week. You may not recognize Fred Turner's name, but you’ve heard his stories many, many times—whether you wanted to or not.

Fred Turner was chairman of the board of the McDonald’s fast food empire from 1977 until his retirement in 2004. Crowned “The Adman of the (1980s) Decade” by Advertising Age, Turner was a masterful 20th century marketer. And his success was, in many ways, attributable to the storytelling elements he applied to McDonald’s marketing strategy.

He identified and focused on his target audience. As America’s nuclear families radiated out to the suburbs in the 1960s, Turner directed his troupes to follow them. “Our move to the suburbs was a conscious effort to go for the family business. That meant going after the kids.” – TIME 1973

He focused on character and the most effective medium. “We decided to use television, so we created our own character Ronald McDonald.” – Ibid.

He was a master of detail and specificity. “Mr. Turner wrote what was known internally as ‘The Bible,’ documenting McDonald's pioneering food production. French fries had to be cut exactly 0.28 inches thick. Burgers went on the grill in six neat rows.” – The Wall Street Journal.

And he made sure his audience heard McDonald’s story.

Caution: Watching these vintage McDonald’s commercials may cause earworms

Seriously.

The trouble is that Turner’s 20th century application of traditional storytelling elements—reaching every suburban kid with relentless television ads featuring a freaky two-dimensional clown—actually backfired in the digital age. (Check out Erik Sherman’s insightful analysis of the McDonald's hashtag #McCalculation at CBSMoneywatch.com.)

The monolithic monologues that replaced traditional storytelling in the 20th century have themselves been replaced by richer and often more personal stories shared by smaller communities through an array of interactive media.

Turner’s marketing gifts were awe-inspiring … for his time. But technology has forced corporate America to mothball most of its 20th century marketing techniques. And that’s OK, because we all deserve a break today.