Throughout the years, McDonald’s has used numerous tactics to sell its food, from luring kids in with Happy Meal toys to enlisting the help of celebrities such as Michael Jordan and the “Space Jam” cast.
Last week, the international fast-food behemoth tried another approach: by debuting a commercial in the United Kingdom that featured a child wanting to know more about what his deceased father was like.
But the ad backfired, prompting accusations that McDonald’s was using childhood grief to sell fast food — and forcing the company, days later, to apologize and pull the campaign.
“It was never our intention to cause any upset,” a McDonald’s representative told The Washington Post in a statement Tuesday. “We are particularly sorry that the advert may have disappointed those people who are most important to us — our customers.”
In the 90-second commercial, a young boy walks alongside his mother as she runs through a list of his father’s traits and hobbies: “Never scruffy. Always smart. And his shoes, so shiny, you could see your face in ‘em.” His father was captain of the football team, she adds.
With each quality, the boy seems disappointed to realize he doesn’t seem to have much in common with his late parent. They arrive at a McDonald’s. By now, the boy has stopped asking his mother questions.
Soon after, they sit down at the table, the boy gets ready to take a bite out of his Filet-O-Fish sandwich.
“That was your dad’s favorite, too,” his mother mentions offhand. The boy looks up, startled but pleased.
The commercial ends.
The ad seemed to divide those who watched it. Shortly after it aired, many people took to social media to say they were not loving it. Some said they had lost a parent as a child and were offended at the suggestion that a McDonald’s meal would have lessened the pain.
“You always wonder how many people had to sign off on an ad like this,” tweeted Martin Belam, an editor at the Guardian in London.
Still, others couldn’t fathom what all the fuss was about. The commercial harked back to McDonald’s “old fashioned” days, when its advertising was driven by the desire to tell a story, according to a column by advertising and media reporter Lewis Lazare in the Chicago Business Journal.
“There’s really nothing here to apologize for, McDonald’s,” Lazare wrote. “And certainly nothing that should have caused you to pull the commercial. You aired a spot with great feeling that would have surely resonated with many, despite the outspoken naysayers.”
By Tuesday afternoon, more than 100 complaints about the commercial had been logged with the Advertising Standards Authority, a nonprofit group that regulates the advertising industry in the United Kingdom.
“Complainants have objected that it is inappropriate and insensitive to use bereavement and grief to sell fast food,” ASA spokeswoman Ella Cahoon told The Post in an email. “Some complainants have referenced the proximity to Father’s Day. We’re carefully assessing the complaints but no decision has been reached on whether there are grounds to launch an investigation.”
Shelley Gilbert, a psychotherapist who founded the British children’s charity Grief Encounter, told the Guardian that the group had received “countless phone calls” complaining about the ad.
“What have done is exploited childhood bereavement as a way to connect with young people and surviving parents alike – unsuccessfully,” Gilbert told the newspaper. “One in 29 children are bereaved of a parent or sibling by the time they are 16 years of age, so this storyline will resonate with a huge number of children and surviving parents.”
McDonald’s announced Tuesday that it would withdraw its ad “completely and permanently” from all platforms this week.
“We will also review our creative process to ensure this situation never occurs again,” a company representative said in an email.
It’s certainly not the first time a company has apologized for a perceived marketing misstep in recent months. Perhaps the most high-profile flop came in April, when Pepsi released a (very short-lived) commercial featuring Kendall Jenner that was immediately panned as “tone deaf.” Critics accused the company – and Jenner – of appropriating serious political and social-justice movements to sell soda.
Within a day, the ad campaign was canned.
“Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding,” the company said in a statement then. “Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”
Advertisements that try to evoke an emotional response from consumers are risky, said Jonah Berger, an associate professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
“In general, consumers know that ads are trying to convince them and they feel like it’s a bit unfair or sort of incorrect when ads use emotions to try to trick them or try to persuade them,” Berger told The Post. “When emotions get involved, often consumers can feel it’s a little bit slimy.”
A commercial that shows a car zooming down a highway, followed by an announcement that a dealership is having a sale, for example, would likely not trigger any backlash because the audience expects that the ad is trying to sell a car to them, Berger said.
Potential pitfalls arise when companies take a stand on an issue or try to capture a trend or movement that doesn’t feel organic or genuine. The McDonald’s commercial fell flat for some because, in the end, “there’s no particular reason that that story had to do with the brand,” Berger said.
“In general, one question How relevant the brand is to the narrative?” he said. “When the brand is integral to the narrative, consumers are less likely to be upset. When it feels irrelevant, that’s when some of the negativity kind of kicks in.”