Upon spotting McDonald's ATLIENS ad a couple of months ago while driving down Moreland Ave., my first thought actually was more like: Oh hell nawl! Does Big Boi know about this bull!?!
Apparently, I wasn't alone, as Maurice Garland reacted on Twitter to the ad, which cribs the title of OutKast's sophomore album and title song, "ATLiens."
ATLiens eat McDonald's? Thought we dined on fish & grits and all the pimp shit... #Lawsuitmaybe? http://t.co/cIir4n0QKG
- Maurice Garland (@Maurice_Garland) May 21, 2013
In case you haven't seen it (pictured above), the ad featured on billboards and MARTA buses spells out "ATLIENS!" in all-capital white letters on a black, starry background using a Dr. Pepper fountain drink as the letter "I" and an order of McDonald's fries as the exclamation point. "DINE AFTER DARK," it reads below that.
Pretty cool, as far as advertising campaigns go - which is exactly the point. Atlanta's cultural capital is being misappropriated like a mug. And it's not even the latest example of corporations swagger-jacking our cool.
The Bravo Network, responsible for turning Atlanta into the "Real Housewives" capital of the world, is launching it's fifth (yes, fifth) series based here this fall with the debut of "The New Atlanta."
Now it could be pure coincidence that "New Atlanta" also happens to be the name the city's otherwise off-brand/wildly creative crop of young hip-hop artists, producers, visual artists, and designers coined their DIY movement last year.
But I doubt it.
The #NewAtlanta hashtag became such a social media mainstay around that time that even The New York Times and Complex magazine attempted to offer their takes on the scene. Bravo's version of "The New Atlanta" will further co-opt the term, as it follows five high-profile social climbers of various professions as they move and shake (and occasionally fight) their way through the city. The original title of the show, "Taking Atlanta," seems almost too appropriate on second thought.
On one hand, the blatant rip-off of Atlanta's essence could be flattering; a blessed burden for a city overflowing with cool. Hate it or love it, Atlanta's biggest export is its cultural production. This city churns out more swag per capita than Wall Street upchucks robber-baron bankers or Hollywood manufacturers movie stars. Despite whatever identity hang-ups we may have about that, ATL has proven itself a marketable commodity. And that's a problem lesser cities would love to have.
As urban marketer and curator of Atlanta culture, Bem Joiner, said when I shared my initial thoughts with him on the McDonald's ad: "At least we have something worth co-opting."
Bravo's infatuation with Atlanta is simple, too. This city has become a cash cow for the network. Not just because the city's tax incentives have made it so cheap to produce television here, but because the rest of the country seems to eat it up. "Real Housewives of Atlanta" remains the best-rated show of the Housewives franchise and the entire network.
"Atlanta is mecca," Bravo's senior VP of current production Shari Levine recently told The Hollywood Reporter. "There is so much personality to that city, and the people really reflect that."
The question is whether or not it adds value to the city or dilutes our authenticity.
A few cover stories back, Creative Loafing explored the economic cost of the tax incentives the state heaps upon television and film studios to produce here ("Georgia's Blank Check to Hollywood"). It may be worth exploring the cultural costs, too, especially where reality TV is concerned. Mona-Scott Young, the New York-based executive producer behind VH1's "Love and Hip Hop Atlanta," which sparked outrage and an online petition against the network during last year's premiere season, is also an executive producer of Bravo's forthcoming "The New Atlanta." Despite the fact that the "stars" of such reality shows actively participate in creating their own character portrayals, both shows are cases of outside entities defining Atlanta as they see it versus Atlantans defining the city for ourselves.
Being that McDonald's ATLiens ad is designed as a local-only campaign, it could be viewed as a tribute or homage to the city. But when a brand as big as McDonald's appropriates the culture, what also has to be considered is that it's attempting to sell part of Atlanta's intrinsic identity back to Atlantans.
When Maurice Garland posted this pic on Instagram of the ATLIENS ad, one of the first comments came from Atlanta-based graphic artist Mr. Soul, who designed the original logos for Dungeon Family, Disturbing tha Peace, and other iconic Atlanta music collectives/labels. His thoughts on the ad: "#Culture #Exploitation"
Another comment came from Big Boi's wife, Sherlita Patton. "Wow," it read. Dungeon Family member Backbone's response was even more to the point: "check please... "
Before Omar "Chilly-O" Mitchell began selling his ATLien tees several years ago, he got the head nod from Big Boi first and promised Big's younger brother that he wouldn't dilute the brand OutKast created. He kept the tees exclusive by printing limited editions of no more than 24 to 36 per design. "That's one T-shirt I didn't want to slut out because it represents so much," he says. "'ATLien,' for Atlanta, is that big and I wanted to keep it that way."
When Big and Dre dropped ATLiens in August of 1996 - the same month Atlanta hosted the Olympics - they were responding in part to the "closed-minded[ness]" they'd faced from hip-hop's New York cognoscenti upon being booed at the 1995 Source Awards. In the same fashion, #NewAtlanta was a way to brand a segment of the city's creative scene that was getting overlooked by the mainstream hip-hop that had come to narrowly define Atlanta to outsiders in the two decades since Dre said "the South got something to say."
For the most part, #NewAtlanta has already been discarded by its original core members because too many people within the city who didn't fit their paradigm shift started attaching themselves to the name. Indeed, corporate marketers aren't the only ones chasing the cool. Things tend to morph as people adopt, adapt, and appropriate
But I guess the question I'm grappling with is whether or not the large-scale commodification of Atlanta cool is the first (or final) nail in the coffin of our coolness? Because considering how everything spreads out from innovators and early adopters to latecomers and laggards, once Ronald McDonald becomes hip it has to be the ultimate sign that your shit is played the fuck out.
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