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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Did somebody say McLiar?

By Joel Stein

Time magazine

December 6, 1999
Web posted at: 1:30 p.m. EST (1830 GMT)

For years I have had my own questions with the WTO. Most of those questions were a variation on "What is this stuff in the newspaper about the WTO?" But thanks to this week's protests in Seattle, I now know that the WTO is some sort of organization that deals with trade barriers but doesn't help women, the environment, indigenous people or anarchists. Personally that sounds like a lot to ask from people already willing to spend entire days discussing tariffs, but still, I am definitely down with the protesters in Seattle. They are expressing rage about being dominated by corporations like Starbucks, McDonald's and Nike. I hate big corporations. Unfortunately, like most Americans I like the products they make. But I like the idea of breaking store windows and bothering police while dressed as a sea turtle even more. So to prepare for my role as protester for the next WTO convention, I needed my own peeve with corporate America.

For years I've noticed that McDonald's signs across America have their counters stuck at 99 billion served. McDonald's, I figured, was waiting for just the right moment to spring a big 100 billion campaign on us based on the assumption that people who eat poultry nuggets are easily duped.

I called my brother-in-arms, Jose Bove, the French farm leader who has taken crowbars to McDonald's in his homeland. I caught him on his cell phone while he walked the turbulent streets of downtown Seattle. It took him a while to understand the importance of my findings. But eventually he caught on. "McDonald's had a good way to make publicity, and people like that," he said. And then, after some mushy watermelon sounds in the background, he added, "I have a problem with police. Can you call me back here?"

Empowered by Bove's bravery, I called Nancy Izquierdo at McDonald's corporate communications, who told me the company stopped counting on April 14, 1994, when, at the shady sounding, acronym-needy McDonald's Biennial Worldwide Convention, then chairman Michael Quinlan announced that the company had passed the 100-billion-burgers mark and somehow missed it. Deciding to focus on the future, he advised the 25,000 franchise owners to switch to the Carl Saganesque "billions and billions." I didn't buy one word of it. So I stopped at my McDonald's on 34th Street in Manhattan, which has a 99 Billion Served sign. Manager Eddie Correa said he was unfamiliar with the Biennial Edict and hadn't thought about changing the sign during his two years with the company. Dissatisfied, I ate a double cheeseburger.

Then I noticed that Eddie's sign doesn't have a space for a third digit, which must have prevented Eddie from rolling past 99 because of this low-tech Y2K problem. It seems corporate behemoths actually aren't all that well structured. I work for a corporation with a market capitalization larger than McDonald's, and our television reviewer still can't get free Time Warner cable service. Maybe it's a miracle that the global community is working at all. Even so, I'm still going to dress like a sea turtle. But I'm going to continue doing it in the privacy of my own home.


Cover Date: December 13, 1999

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