06/07/2010 03:07 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

McDonald's France Denies Targeting Gays

"Are homosexuals hesitant to enter a McDonald's restaurant in France?" is one of the many questions raised after the release of a new commercial for the fast food company's French division. The ad, which is shown on television and movie theaters in France but gained a lot of attention worldwide on YouTube, portrays a young man talking on the phone to his boyfriend, before being told by his father that he would be very successful with girls.

"I asked the writers to come up with stories, fables that could take place in a McDonald's, which are pretty neutral spaces," says Stéphane Xiberras, president and creative director of BETC Euro RSCG, the agency which created the campaign. "Among the ideas, I immediately loved this one. Originally we were going to have him come out to his father, but we thought the teen telling his father he's gay, in front of a burger and fries, that would have been ... unsubtle."

The ad was directed by french film director Xavier Giannoli as part of a campaign entitled "Venez comme vous êtes" ("Come As You Are"). Another spot shows an elderly couple practicing online dating, and one shows a single mother with her mouthy daughter .

Nathalie Legarlantezec, brand director at McDonald's France, explains: "We wanted to take a look at how French society is today. We're very comfortable with the topic of homosexuality, there is obviously no problem with homosexuality in France today." While the statement sounds a bit naive in a country where same sex couples cannot legally marry nor adopt, the idea was to give a positive image of the brand: "The point was not to show someone who is troubled, especially a teenager. We know it can be difficult for some people, but we wouldn't have dared show someone who is struggling."

What's most surprising is that McDonald's denies targeting gay audiences: "Our target today is very broad. Our clientele is the entire French population ... we don't need to target anyone specific". In 2009, France was the second highest grossing market for McDonald's in the world. Legarlantezec ads: "We wanted an ad that could move anyone. I'm a mother, I cannot particularly relate, but when I see this kid look up at his father ... I have goosebumps."

While gays are still rarely seen in advertising in the United States (as shown by the ad that was pulled by CBS from the SuperBowl broadcast), some French commercials have started tackling the issue. However, most of them were reaching for cheap laughs, like this Renault commercial illustrating "the evolution of society" in which a young man asks his drag queen father to help him get inside a trendy club. "Advertising is commerce," says Xiberras, "We go for simple things, clichés, big jokes. It's really rare to get a chance to show something sensible, like a realistic image of a young homosexual. That's risky."

While the spot is successful at avoiding clichés, the story still relies on a surprise twist, a problem the author of the ad himself recognizes: "If we were in a society that is really accepting of homosexuality, people would say that this ad is boring, "So what?", but instead we go "Oooh wow he's gay!" That's proof that we all still have a lot of work to do."

Xiberras was afraid of people's reactions, "I feel responsible for what I send to broadcast. I owe respect to the people who watch it". At McDonald's France, caution is also being used: "We checked that the ad didn't spark negative reactions, we follow what is being said on the internet. So far the gay community has been very supportive, people are saying it took guts to do this." The ad may not target homosexuals, but their point of view seems to matters, and that in itself is a significant "evolution of society."

This post originally appeared in French on