Been to a movie recently? Did you see the Hangover part 2, Paranormal Activity 3, Pirates of the Caribbean 4, X-men 5 (subtly retitled “First Class”), Planet of the Apes 7, or maybe you saw Harry Potter 8. In all, there are set to be 27 sequels this year and 14 of those are the 4th, 5th, 7th, or 8ths in their franchise. An alien looking down on the United States would think we hate original movies, but a sociologist would say that this is the McDonaldization of Society at work.
Sociologist George Ritzer suggests that the principles of McDonalds (i.e. efficiency, predictability, uniformity, and control) have become the principles behind how we run society as a whole. He is not arguing that McDonald’s food is affecting society. He is arguing that society is becoming like a McDonalds. The flood of movie sequels is a prime example of the McDonaldization principle of predictability.
Stop for a minute and think about what a McDonald’s hamburger bun tastes like. Can you think of it? You probably can because all of McDonald’s food tastes almost exactly the same anywhere you eat it. Doesn’t that strike you as odd? I want you to go home and make a burger and fries for five nights in a row and tell me if they taste identical. Now imagine you had to make burgers and fries at the millions of McDonald’s located all across the country, could you make them taste identical?
Yes, if you relied on chemical additives to produce your flavor. As Eric Schlosser reported in Fast Food Nation, McDonalds uses chemicals to produce food with identical flavor and color. McDonald’s principle of predictability is obvious in how its food is prepared. Go to any McDonalds and order a number 2 and your cheese burger will taste nearly identical to any other McDonald’s cheese burger. Furthermore, the process of ordering is super efficient and highly routinized. You could walk into any McDonalds in the world with a wad of cash in one hand, put a number of digits in the air with the other hand, and voilà they will give you food.
Now watch the Hangover 2 and you’ll find it is almost identical to the Hangover with some Bangkok added in. Transformers 3 will have car robots and explosions. Paranormal Activity 3 will have creepy ghosts and a few hair raising moments. Ask yourself, when was the last time you went to a movie and had absolutely no idea what was going to happen in the film? Many movie previews or “trailers” give away most of the key plot points and occasionaly give away the endings.
Sometimes the movie itself isn’t a sequel, but its plot is so formulaic that it might as well be. For instance, most romantic comedies go like this: Woman (does/doesn’t) have life together (except/and) her love life is in ruins. She meets a seemingly jerky or daangerous guy who through the power of her love she is able to transform into a prince charming like dude who she will live happily ever after with.
If we look at dollars spent as a sign of what people want, then we can safely say that more often than not people want predictability when it comes to movies. The Hangover 2, despite being brutalized by critics, made over $130 million in its opening weekend. So next time you head out to the movies think about predictability as you scan the coming soon posters.
- Where else do we see consumers preferring predictable products over innovative? Think about the things you spend your money on; what do you want to be predictable and what do you like to be more unconventional?
- Why do corporations prefer to produce predictable output? Think like a movie executive. If you are going to invest millions of dollars in the production of a movie, why would you prefer a movie that has previously been successful?
- In your opinion do you think this “sequel madness”, as Ebert calls it, is sustainable? Will we be watching Pirates of the Carriabean 27 in 2025? Why or why not?
- Ritzer is arguing that the “McDonaldization” process has affect many if not all aspects of culture and society in the United States. Where else do we see society restructuring itself toward efficiency, predictability, uniformity, and control?
- Ritzer is not talking about the obesity epidemic here. For one reason or another if you ask someone on the street what “The McDonaldization of Society” means, they automatically think of food, overeating, McRibs, and Shamrock Shakes. Banish this thought, McDonalidzation has very little to do with food. ↩