Published August 22, 2015
Earlier this year, local media feasted on a story about Iceland’s last surviving McDonald’s hamburger, reportedly purchased the day before the fast food chain closed shop in 2009—and still looking good as new. The burger’s owner claimed that he had tried to gift it to the National Museum of Iceland, which he said showed little interest in the prospect of displaying an ageing fast food meal.
However, a keen businessman with an eye for PR stunts seized the opportunity and offered to host the infamous burger. Those interested in Iceland’s culinary history can thus observe the specimen over at Reykjavík’s Bus Hostel, or view a real-time feed of the burger’s daily life at the hostel’s website. Reportedly, a few visitors have even succumbed to temptation and pocketed some of the accompanying french fries, which are said to remain in excellent condition.
For now, Iceland’s last Mickey D’s rests in peace, showing no sign of defeat or decay. It has secured its place in the limelight, successfully contributing to the rhetoric so vigorously advocated by local travel, business and governmental agencies that wish to depict Iceland as an “out of this world” destination—most peculiar, strange and exotic.
The story of Iceland’s McDonalds burger is interesting for various reasons. The omniscient fast food chain was present for the nation’s staggering ascension to economic prosperity, as well as its subsequent fall from grace. Along with accompanying Icelanders through some tumultuous times, the fast food chain’s history in Iceland furthermore strangely embodies their aspirations for belonging in a rapidly modernising world.
The opening of Iceland’s first McDonald’s franchise can be taken as a symbol of the concurrent dawn of neoliberalism in the nation’s political sphere. McDonald’s opened for business in Iceland on September 9, 1993, a major event that featured prominently in every newspaper. Most outlets opted to run a photo of Iceland’s then-Prime Minister Davíð Oddsson symbolically welcoming McDonald’s by heartily gorging on the chain’s first Iceland-made burger. Perhaps he thought the publicity stunt especially appropriate because he was following into the footsteps of neoliberal icon Margaret Thatcher, who had similarly opened an enlarged McDonald’s in Britain in 1989. Photographs from the opening event depict the smiling faces of the era’s prominent businessmen—almost no women are visible—besuited in their dark armour, toasting their triumph.
While McDonald’s has been harshly criticised on various fronts internationally, the chain was, for the most part, greeted with open arms in Iceland. Icelanders’ warm welcome marked the beginning of an affectionate relationship that continued somewhat smoothly right up until McDonald’s left the country in 2009, one year after the nation’s economy collapsed.
As a mother of young children in the early 2000s, I had to regularly defend, or at least explain, my lack of interest in providing them an opportunity to enjoy McDonald’s’ culinary offerings. The Icelandic public’s generally positive attitude towards the brand and its products, I learned, stood in complete contrast to those shared by many of my friends in other countries at the time.
To better comprehend Icelanders’ somewhat unusually positive reception of the infamous multinational fast food chain, it is useful to consider McDonald’s as a controversial symbol of modernity, rationality and globalisation. In the Global South, marketing professor Elif Izerk-Bilgin argues, McDonald’s is often celebrated due to the prestige that multinational brands carry, even though its arrival has often been contested as well. When McDonald’s opened shop in the Moscow in 1990, for example, its founder and senior chair George Cohon, later described it as a ‘statement’ that Russia was willing to “embrace” the West and that McDonald’s symbolised a step in the right direction.
Icelanders’ positive reception of McDonald’s can be contextualised within Iceland’s former status as a Danish colony, and their efforts in the early 20th century to prove that Iceland belonged as a sovereign, modernising nation within “civilised” white Europe. In their newfound independence, for instance, Icelanders tended to react strongly to European discussion concerning them, wherein travellers and scientists would regularly publish writing that described the country as exotic and primitive. As argued by anthropologist Anne Brydon, Icelanders continued to find foreigners incognisant of Iceland’s modernity as on pair with the United States and Europe, indicating the long-standing affectivity to the idea of modernisation as well as anxieties of not being recognised by the outside world as a fully modernised nation.
Thus, the celebration of the opening of McDonald’s in Iceland can be ascribed to its symbolic display of the country’s full entry into this thing called “modernity.” The Prime Minister’s big bite becomes a triumphant exclamation of a society that has overcome poverty and subjugation, and finally gained the ultimate sign of modernisation—a McDonald’s franchise.
If McDonald’s was a sign of Iceland finally entering the world of modernity, it is also symbolic of Iceland’s monumental abjection from it.
In 2009, a year after Icelanders suffered a massive economic crash, the local franchise holder announced with but a week’s notice that the chain was leaving Iceland, and that this was a result of the collapse. He then announced the opening of Metro where McDonalds’s had previously been, offering a similar menu with similar prices. This event simultaneously symbolised and intensified Icelanders’ sense that all was lost. Even those who would probably have celebrated the event under different circumstances saw it as a reflection of the general state of affairs in Iceland. Long queues formed at McDonald’s locations, with locals savouring their final opportunity to enjoy a McDonald’s hamburger.
The media estimated that between 10-15,000 flocked to McDonald’s for each day of its last week of operation—the total attendance representing almost a third of Iceland’s population. As one person told me in an interview at the time: “The closing was symbolic; we are not a nation among nations. We don’t even have a McDonald’s here anymore. That is how it is.” Another person, blogging about the closing, asked ironically if it shows “that we are a little corner of the world that is not worthy of hosting this famous chain?” These concerns were mixed with familiar anxieties of belonging within Europe, harking back to the early 20th century, when Iceland struggled to establish its status as a “civilised,” “modern” country
To add to the anxieties and sense of humiliation, McDonald’s closing also became a major international media event, dutifully reported by large players such as Bloomberg, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal and Fox. The editor of the Wall Street Journal pointed out that aside from Iceland, only extremely poor and war-torn countries do not harbour a McDonald’s franchise. The interest in McDonald’s’ abandonment of Iceland was reported on so extensively that one local newspaper claimed that it received almost as much coverage as the collapse of the Icelandic government at the beginning of that same year, and the ICESAVE dispute that followed.
Regardless, the ageing hamburger at Bus Hostel Reykjavík signifies that McDonald’s is (almost) forever, and that by its different associations it continues to articulate dimensions of Iceland as a postcolonial space. In the present, McDonald’s has come to serve a new role, where Iceland is redefined as an exotic space for the fast-growing tourism sector. Within contemporary geopolitics, strongly shaped by neoliberal ideas of nation branding, exoticism has become a valuable commercial resource for the tourist industry. Iceland’s exoticism is thus no longer contested by the Icelanders themselves—rather it is celebrated in various acts of self-parody and attempts to brand Iceland as space of unique adventures.
The character of the Icelandic people is one of the key products for sale, and in that context, the last surviving McDonald’s resting under a dome in a McDonald’s-free (or deprived) country fits perfectly.
Kristín Loftsdóttir is Professor of anthropology at the University of Iceland. She focuses on Iceland’s national identity, as it has been shaped by its status as a Danish colony until 1944, and the historical desires and anxieties of belonging within the space of Europe.
For further reading: Kristín Loftsdóttir (2014). Iceland, Rejected by McDonald’s: Desire and Anxieties in a Global Crisis”. Social Anthropology, 22(3):340-352.