Asterix, the Gallic cartoon hero who liked nothing better than beating up the Roman legionnaires who occupied his country more than 2,000 years ago, has met his match.
The McDonald's hamburger chain that occupies villages throughout modern-day France has commandeered the diminutive warrior to promote its food as part of a marketing campaign launched yesterday that pushes aside the venerable clown, Ronald McDonald.
The move to link a French icon with television commercials, posters and a new series of "ancient Gallic" burgers has generated a good deal of controversy in France, where hostility to American-style fast food is widespread.
"The bad food giant has taken over the indomitable Gaul," noted Télérama, a French cultural magazine.
But others are noting that the U.S. restaurant giant's move to use Asterix and his oafish sidekick, Obelix, in a marketing campaign represents a victory for French exceptionalism and might even help McDonald's in turning the tide against traditionalists campaigning against the invasion of la malbouffe (junk food).
McDonald's has borne the brunt of attacks by those French who cherish the country's food-loving history and want to hang on to the image built on red wine, aromatic cheeses, crusty baguettes and three-day cassoulets.
José Bové is often named Asterix, after the famous Gallic comic hero fighting against the Roman occupiers and symbolizing French pride. His popularity also extends outside France, since he was ranked by Business Week among the 50 European leaders at the forefront of change. REUTERS/Jean-Philippe Arles
The chain has become the favourite target for antiglobalization grievances. Last year, protesters hurled stink bombs at a McDonald's in Paris, one of about 900 throughout France. In 1999, French farmer José Bové led a gang that tore apart an outlet under construction in the southern town of Millau.
The matter is only deepened by the fact that Mr. Bové, who is appealing his three-month sentence, spent four childhood years in the United States and sports a bushy moustache that gives him an uncanny resemblance to Asterix.
Grégoire Champetier, McDonald's marketing director in France, said the new campaign is not a response to Mr. Bové, who has become a folk hero in France. He acknowledged, however, that the Asterix campaign is an attempt to play down the chain's U.S. roots.
"The operation should help integrate McDonald's into French culture," he said yesterday.
This isn't the first attempt by the chain to trade the red, white and blue for the tricolore. Three years ago, in the wake of Mr. Bové's vandalism, it ran a blitz of ads that ended with the slogan, "Born in the United States, made in France."
Don Thompson, a marketing professor at York University's Schulich school of business, said McDonald's has been one of the leaders in granting autonomy to its national divisions to adjust to local tastes and attitudes.
He said in its early years in the United States, the chain imposed strict codes about food preparation and decor to send a message to consumers about the comforts of standardization.
But in the past three decades, he said, McDonald's has allowed substantial changes in local formats in some of the 121 countries in which it operates.
"The name and the arches remain, but the menus and the way it's done have changed dramatically," Prof. Thompson said.
In France and some other countries, wine is served. In India, Maharaja Macs are made of lamb, not beef, in deference to Hindu sensibilities. In South Korea, McDonald's serves kimchi burgers as a paean to the aromatic, fermented cabbage that is a staple of the country's diet.
The new French menu features seven new sandwiches tied into Asterix's adventures against the Romans in pre-Christian times in a movie being released in February.
It isn't the fare you would find in suburban Des Moines: The McLutèce, for example, has emmenthal cheese; the McAlexandrie features grilled eggplant and olive sauce.
Marketers call it "glocalization" -- the creation of products or services intended for the global market but customized to suit a local culture.
It's not a strategy that applies to all products -- it makes little sense to adapt a Honda or BMW for local conditions. But many other multinational companies live by a strategy that dictates they must try to look and feel like a local company.
For example, Coca-Cola has long devolved power to its national divisions. There are, for example, about a dozen formulations of the cola drink around the world. (The Canadian formula is seven calories sweeter than the U.S. version.)
Yahoo, the Web portal, hires local teams to sift through content for each of its international sites.
Others have adopted the strategy after sad experience. Revlon, the beauty-products company, tried to expand in Asia in the late 1990s using ads that featured Cindy Crawford but it took a beating from L'Oréal, which used a Chinese star.
Prof. Thompson believes that giving Ronald McDonald le pink slip and appropriating Asterix is something of a master stroke.
"As a symbol of the francophonization of McDonald's, it is probably a excellent idea," he said. "It may be harder to trash a restaurant with Asterix standing outside than with Ronald."
Who is Asterix?
Asterix and his friends made their first appearance 43 years ago in the French magazine Pilote. Since then, more than 30 books have chronicled their adventures in resisting the powerful Roman army in ancient Gaul circa 50 BC.
Each book carries a relief drawing of ancient France with a Roman flagstaff plunged into the heart of the country: "All of Gaul is occupied by the Romans. All? No! A village of unconquerable Gauls forever resists the invader."
Asterix is aided in keeping his village out of Roman hands by a magic potion supplied by the druid Panoramix. His oafish friend, the stonecarver Obelix, is of invaluable help but he doesn't need the potion because he fell into a vat of it when he was a baby.
The series was the creation of René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, who conceived of it as they sat on a Paris balcony one evening in 1959 and played with the stereotypes of France's long-vanished Celtic civilization.
Many critics find the Asterix books quintessentially French and complain that they don't travel well. Nevertheless, more than 280 million copies have been sold in 77 languages.
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