Your Way? Right Away.

My wife and I spent two weeks travelling across southern Spain and Portugal in December. Our first time in Europe, I assumed the worst of globalized neo-liberalism as I pictured Europe as little more than (to paraphrase Homer Simpson) America Junior. It felt weird spending all this time and money simply to go someplace that was identical to here, give or take some castles the fascists couldn’t be bothered to destroy back in the ’40s. Before leaving, I joked that I would bring people back Duck Dynasty gifts from the Wal-Mart there.

Of course my cycnicism had to make apologies around.

I was more than a little surprised to find none of this to be true, and even moreso the lack of Anglocentrism in general. (Not complaining!) Once surviving the wild west of their ’roundabout’ intersections (combined with the presence of kamikaze scooter pilots and the rain) I found a country very different than what western media would have led me to believe.

I tend to believe that a place is best defined by its residents and, regardless the city or region we were in, the Spaniards we saw were themselves almost entirely well-dressed and -groomed, thin. And while they all seem to smoke, there is a pervasive walking, or at any rate, ‘outdoors everyday’, culture we’re missing here in the states. Their meal portions are small, with minimal dairy (or condiments for that matter), and yet they don’t seem to skimp on flavor or variety. Despite the news that the global financial crisis had hurt Spain more than other areas in the EU, it was impossible to tell by the locals’ seemingly unflinching desire to live each day as though it was the best thing that had ever happened to them.

Naturally, I could only handle a few days of such enthusiasm for life before seeking out something familiar if not entirely shitty. And so it would come to pass that one rainy night in Madrid would find us looking for shelter in the Home Of The Whopper.

Yet this was different too. And not in the tired “Royalewitcheese”, Tarantino-Does-Europe sort of way, but radically, philosophically different.

We immediately noticed a wide open floorplan with modern furninture, well lit and bright with the corporate reds and yellows among bright, hardwood surfaces. The place had way more staff than possibly needed, and they were as meticulously groomed as those outside. The real surprise is that these staff were actively working, so that at one point there were at least two polishing the mirrored chrome staircase leading to a downstairs dining room. The restaurant hosted the best public restrooms we’d see all month, and surprisingly, were left unlocked and open to the public. There was no trash or spills around the bowl, with lights, faucets and hand-dryers on energy-efficient timers.

An area near the entrance was stocked with oversize danish armchairs and end tables. While there, I noticed a group of maybe six or eight twentysomethings come in simply to hang out in that area to have some beers before heading out for a night of clubbing. (Draft beer is offered with your value meal on par with soda, or can be ordered off the menu.) This was the oddest thing, I thought: specifically coming to a fast food restaurant―on purpose―to simply hang out?

It made me think: Why is the US experience so different? Do we really value Cheap and Fast and More so much? I considered that my surprise came from the contrast with what my normal fast food experience is generally: one of hurried, stressed, sad, fat people constantly on their way to something else. The way Americans eat is reflective of our devotion to The Next Best Thing, whether it be a career move or just to be first in carpool line.

From a designer’s perspective, I’ve been reading more and more discussion by marketers defining the traditional forms of corporate Identity as a static artifact (noun) versus the more contemporrary forms of branding as a live narrative (verb). There’s a lot of push to “create story,” which leads to a history of relationships between user and server, and the supposed bonds of connection these sorts of narratives forge.

So let me ask again: why is the US experience so different? Are our priorities just so far adrift from the Live Life To The Fullest attitudes of southern Europe? Is BK simply giving their audience what they want, depending on which continent they happen to live? Is it more possible that the large, corporate sponsors of US culture have instead shaped the way in which we think, approach our days, and effect even how we choose to eat. Would it be possible, in the ongoing quest for market pole position, that a chain like Burger King could use their European tactics (already proven at an economy of scale) domestically to zig where their competition has zagged in their respective races for the bottom?