The Great American Hamburger War constantly challenges the creativity as well as the cuisine of the combatants. For its latest commercial, McDonald’s has conjured up a desert-island setting on a glistening strand of public beach in Puerto Rico. The shipwreck has arrived by truck, the Robinson Crusoe hideaway has been tacked together by carpenters, and the palm trees—the take-out variety—have been jammed into the sand at the water’s edge. Alas, there is trouble in this fast-food paradise. The temperature is pushing 90 degrees, the Caribbean sun is beating down hard enough to sear everyone’s patties, the cast is already on take 14, and Robby Rosa, 13—the newest member of the Puerto Rican teen-dream singing group Menudo—is having difficulty summoning up any appetite for the amorphous, browned lumps of chicken heaped on a yellow Styrofoam tray in his lap.
“Dip them in the barbecue sauce,” someone helpfully suggests.
“But he doesn’t like the barbecue sauce,” retorts a member of the Menudo entourage.
“Whaddya mean, he doesn’t like the barbecue sauce?” exclaims a McDonald’s man reproachfully.
Bob Keyser, the chain’s amiable press-relations chief, watches the activity with a knowing expression on his sunburned face. “The intensity builds whenever you work with the food,” explains Keyser, a two-year survivor of fast-food battles. “We take the hamburger business more seriously than anyone else.”
Seriously, indeed. For six days and nights, in the Centro de Bellas Artes in downtown San Juan and on Luquillo Beach, 30 miles down the coast, the billions-of-burgers people have been filming Menudo in a pair of commercials of such technical complexity, logistic difficulty and lavish overproduction that not even Steven Spielberg would be unimpressed. It’s all part of McDonald’s strategy to capture the growing Hispanic market in the U.S., which now numbers 23 million potential burger buyers, including almost 10 million under the age of 18. “The ’80s is the decade of the Hispanic,” says Michelle Aragon, 30, vice-president of Conill Advertising, McDonald’s Hispanic-market advertising agency, which created the campaign for the company and is now acquiring an increasing share of the burger chain’s staggering $400 million advertising budget.
Menudo seems the perfect choice to sell those Grande Macs. The group is the fast food of the pop-music industry, a quintet of baby-faced Puertorriqueños (currently Ricky Meléndez, 16, Charlie Rivera Massó, 14, Ray Reyes León, 14, Robby Rosa, 13, and Roy Rosello, 13) whose bubble-gum love songs have made them the heartthrobs of teenage Latino girls from New York City to Venezuela. The group stays forever young by replacing its members when they turn 16, or as soon as their voices begin to change, with equally wholesome clones. Menudo has raked in millions through records, concert tours and licensing fees for more than 50 products bearing its name. It crowned a seven-year rise to stardom with a series of sellout concerts at New York’s Radio City Music Hall in February, and recently signed an RCA recording contract reportedly worth $30 million.
What’s more, Padosa—Menudo’s management company, headed by the group’s enigmatic creator, Edgardo Díaz Meléndez, 32—has no apparent qualms about turning its pop stars into pubescent pitchmen. The boys spent three days in March lip-synching and dancing to a McDonald’s jingle in a simulated concert, complete with dozens of swooning female extras (recruited from a San Juan junior high school), garish costumes, a smoke-wreathed stage and glittering light shows. Next they helicopted out to Luquillo Beach for a more elaborate 60-second spot to be broadcast over Spanish-language stations in the U.S. and abroad. The “plot” had four members of the group cast away on a desert-island set until Robby Rosa and a sailor-suited rescuer arrived in a row-boat stuffed with bags of McDonald’s lifesaving provender. Production people and McDonald’s reps found the group “upbeat,” “refreshing,” “exciting” and “amazing,” but others regard the McDonald’s ads as a telling comment on the group’s synthetic commerciality. “Menudo was originally a lovely concept,” said Dr. Neftali Sallaberry, the father of two former Menudo members. “But it’s become a monster, a marketing thing with a life of its own.”
Hardly anybody seemed to mind at Luquillo Beach, where a dozen police and security guards held back a crowd of 300 fans, including grandmothers, who were blowing kisses and screaming greetings at their favorite Menudoites. The boys even found followers among the staffers on the movie unit. A pair of middle-aged wardrobe and makeup assistants were principally engaged in giving back massages and thigh rubs to Ray, a wavy-haired charmer who’s in his second year with the group, who seemed to exert an almost supernatural power over older women. “He’s 100 percent macho!” proclaimed one. “Terribly sexy!” offered the other.
Meanwhile a quartet of “food stylists” worked frantically on what McDonald’s considered the most important element: the food. Perfectly fashioned Chicken McNuggets and Quarter Pounders with cheese rolled off the portable grills, ready to be rushed to stardom in front of the cameras. “The Big Mac is most critical,” explained Tom Lines, McDonald’s technical advertising manager, as his three assistants spruced up burgers with Wesson Oil and tossed wrinkled sesame buns into the discard pile. “After five minutes the lettuce starts to wilt, after 10 the special sauce changes color. And it’s even worse if you are shooting inside under the hot lights.”
The food stylists were not the only ones operating with such relentless efficiency. Orlando Jimenez Leal, 42, the director-cameraman, whose last previous project was a feature documentary about the persecution of Cuban minorities, pushed Menudo through take after numbing take. Most of the scenes were less than five seconds long. But Leal insisted on shooting each a minimum of 10 times—and often shot the same scene from four or five different angles.
Off-camera the boys sought the protection of their entourage, a small phalanx of Padosa management people who treated the group like the precious commodity it clearly is. Menu-do’s mastermind, Díaz, made only a brief appearance, relegating the babysitting to trusted surrogates. “I am their big brother, nurse, choreographer, makeup man, hairstylist, clothing designer and dietitian,” declared José Luis Vega, 22, an ingenuous, rail-thin young man who coached the group through all McDonald’s ad-campaign choreography and joked with them on the sidelines.
Only rarely did it become evident that when all the hype, glitter and hoopla subsided, the boys of Menudo remained, quite simply, boys. During breaks one might find Ricky making tunnels in the wet sand for his battery-operated toy truck. Or Ray, on the beach with a rake, writing his name in four-foot-high letters. Or all five, splashing in the ocean and playing leapfrog. Such moments, however, were fleeting. When the shooting broke up at 6 o’clock, they were quickly hustled into a helicopter. Inside, their faces pressed against the window, they stared and waved—with a trace of longing, it seemed—at a group of some 30 local children gathered with their bicycles at the lift-off spot. Then the whirring rotor blades carried them upward and out of sight, westward toward San Juan and the road shows and recording sessions that awaited them.