Give Me That Fish

April 22, 2009 § 1 Comment

Sometimes you just have to write about the mundane. You find you just don’t have the wherewithal to write about sadness or faith or even the last thing left in Pandora’s box: hope. What is left then is either a blank canvas and hours wasted noodling around because you know you need to write, but you’re not strong enough for writing your heart. That’s when you write about McDonald’s instead.

Unless you’ve been in a cave since sometime-before-Mardi-Gras, you’ve seen the ad. If you’re like most Americans, you probably know every word to the jingle. Love it or hate it, McDonald’s Lenten season commercial for their Filet-o-Fish sandwich has achieved a kind of pop culture status that the Super Bowl spots only dream of.

Easter has come and gone, Lent’s been over for weeks and McDonald’s has ended the promotion, yet people still crave the singing fish. Views of the multiple listings for the spot on Youtube topped two million last week and continue to climb; the first one posted garnered 10,000 views in the first hours it was available.

Since it appeared, Freddy the Fish’s 15 seconds of fame has been parlayed into mashups and remixes by DJs , it’s being played in clubs, there are parodies, children sing it, cats sing it, hell, I even sing it. (Not on Youtube, though, you’ll be glad to know.) You can get the jingle as a ringtone for your cell phone.


Give me  back that Filet-o-Fish

Give me that fish

Give me back that Filet-o-Fish

Give me that fish

What if it were you hanging

up on this wall?

If it were you in that sandwich

you wouldn’t be laughing at all….


When they were looking for a way to promote the fish sandwich during this year’s Lenten season, McDonald’s turned to Arnold, a Boston ad agency. (You can blame them for the Carnival Cruise beach ball ads, along with “Powered by Tyson” and spots for Ocean Spray.) The catch? (Sorry.) The same spot had to work for both English and Spanish-speaking markets.

Pete Harvey, senior ad man at the agency, gave them “Freddy the Fish.” (For the Spanish markets, the piscine star was presented as “Pepe de Pescado.”) Brainstorming in the aptly named “Fish Bowl” conference room, one staffer recalled a decade-old hit novelty item “Billy the Big-Mouthed Bass,” an animatronic rubber fish that sang “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and “Take Me to the River” when passersby set off the motion sensor.

Though Freddy bears more than a passing resemblance to Billy, he is actually a real fish, a pollack, prepared by a Los Angeles taxidermist. (Both pollack and cod are used in the Filet-o-Fish, but the crew decided that the cod was “too scary looking.”) Freddy’s head and tail are activated by remote control. Nonetheless, Gemmy Industries, the manufacturers of the original Billy, were flattered by the imitation. One of their veeps sent a thank you note to McDonalds, and they are introducing a recordable Billy Bass that will be sold through Cabela’s, and a Billy Bass app for your iPhone.

The agency supplied the lyrics to the New York music production company, Pulse Music and composer Josh Peck sent back seven different interpretations of Freddy’s song.  Just before presenting the last variation Peck told the firm “We don’t think you’ll go with this one, it’s the most weird.”  That techno-meets-garage-band sound (“the most weird”) was the unanimous favorite.

“It was the one everyone wanted to hear over and over again,” Pete Harvey told USA Today. “There’s more risk with jingles, but also more reward.”  In scouting out a location, a garage was found that had a Billy Bass already mounted on the wall: they had found the right spot. Ray Conchado, the actor who plays the head-bobbing man eating the sandwich, said he started out eating the whole sandwich with each take. After a few takes, he learned to just take a bite.  J.R. Reed, who portrays the dumbstruck friend returning a borrowed drill, gets the most comment at our house. “The look on that guy’s face is just great,” my husband has said each and every time we’ve seen the spot.  Or even just when talking about it.

Give me that fish.

Every year McDonald’s sells 300 million Filet-o-Fish sandwiches, and twenty-five percent of those are sold during Lent, the forty-day period between Ash Wednesday and Easter during which many devout Roman Catholics give up eating meat.  McDonald’s isn’t the only fast food giant to cash in on this fish-selling opportunity; every chain from Burger King (BK Big Fish replaced the long standing “Whaler” a few years ago) to Rally (Deep Sea Double) to Arby’s (and their touted “fish shaped” sandwich) is in on the act.  As you might expect, the regular fishmongers like Long John Silver and Captain D.’s really step up their ad campaigns too.

We’re not Catholic; we give up nothing for Lent. (I’d be happy to give up housekeeping and overcooked vegetables, but I guess that’s not really in the proper spirit of the thing.) But we do eat more fish in March, and that is due in some small part to the McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish promotions.  Though my husband was pretty upbeat about Rally’s Deep Sea Double, I wasn’t impressed. The fish squares were dry and had a kind of bitter aftertaste. They were too crunchy, and the cheese, well, I don’t know. I just didn’t care for it.

In fact, I generally can’t abide fast food fish. (Yes, I confess, I’m one of those peculiar people that peel the batter off the shrimp.) But that particular combination of the Filet-o-Fish: a tender square of fish, a bit of tartar sauce, a little cheese assembled tidily on (and this is the important part) a steamed bun.  A remarkable number of consumers complain that McDonald’s only puts half a slice of cheese on the Filet-o-Fish. Hello? They’ve only put half a slice of cheese on the sandwich since 1982, when most of the malcontents hadn’t even been born yet.

It’s less a cost-cutting measure than a means to reduce the calorie and fat content in a sandwich that some people might choose as a healthier option to the Big Mac. You could do worse in that respect, the sandwich weighs in (sorry) at 350 calories, 16 grams of protein and 16 grams of fat. An odd side notes here is that two diet websites list the calorie/fat count of the Filet-o-Fish at 450cal/26g and 380cal/18g but those are anomalies, most independent sites agree with McDonald’s own nutritional analysis.

The phenomenon of Freddy the singing fish’s popularity generated a considerable amount of press, not just in trade journals like Brandweek, but also in the “generalist” newspapers, like USA Today and in all manner of websites. Many of them include comment sections, and the comments have run the gamut from “I can’t stand this commercial, I turn the channel every time it comes on” to “I love this! It’s my ringtone.”  (And complaints about the half slice of cheese.)

The real puzzle in the comment section is the invective that pops up fairly regularly. They’re not just critical of McDonald’s, they are screeds: apoplectic rants about the American institution, and its sandwiches. Do vegetarians write them? Sometimes. Are they written by animal rights activists? Probably. Are they written by former employees—some of them, without a doubt. Why do these people even read articles about singing fish commercials if they are going to make their blood pressure go through the roof? It would be less deleterious to their health if they just had a couple of Big Macs and chilled.

It made me think of the Internet rumour a good friend sent me a few months ago, urging me to boycott McDonald’s in a show of support for American cattlemen. The rumour purported that McDonald’s was going to be buying uninspected South American beef, raised on pastures that used to be rainforest, cutting into the livelihoods of ranchers across this fair land. Most of the other big burger chains (Burger King and Wendy’s predominantly) do use South American beef. (And all beef, imported and domestic, in this country is inspected, so that part was just a bugaboo.)

McDonald’s is the single largest buyer of U.S. beef, its not surprising that American cattle producers would be worried that the chain was looking elsewhere for their patties. The problem, according to McDonald’s, is not that there isn’t enough beef produced in the U.S. but because most of the beef here is grain-fed, there is not enough lean beef available here. Therefore, McDonald’s began importing grass-fed beef from Australia and New Zealand; those imports account for about ten percent of the beef they use in this country.

Unlike most other fast food chains, McDonalds has become the standard bearer in environmental conservation. (When they gave up Styrofoam use, it cut Styrofoam demand in this country in half and rainforest conservation via their refusal to use South American beef.) They were among the first to provide better nutritional choices and full disclosure of nutritional analysis.  In philanthropic endeavors, they provide 6,000 bedrooms every night for families of ill children through nearly 300 Ronald McDonald houses (serving more than a million families every year) and through Ronald McDonald House charities, providing hundreds of millions of dollars in grants and program services to benefit children worldwide. 

Because they are so ubiquitous and because every McDonald’s in America can be mapped on their website, they have also become a cog in the vast network that compromises dog rescue and the transport system that makes it work, not just for pure breed rescues, but for shelters across the country in their efforts to place dogs. You’d think people could find something more worthwhile to be enraged about.

We stop at McDonald’s pretty routinely. My father made McDonald’s his regular stop for pee breaks, and when we’re traveling we do the same. When my son was little he and I used to go through the local Drive-thru after school for an order of French fries to share. When I was little you used to be able to go to McDonald’s, get a hamburger, fries and a coke and still get change back for your dollar. I even remember the commercial for it. “Sir? You forgot your change.”  The greatest food? No, probably not. Maybe the most reliable fast food, though, and always, always, the comfort of the familiar.  My Mom usually ordered the Filet-o-Fish.



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