McDonald’s “Signs” – Misplaced Outrage

By: Cody Church

On Jan. 11, during the Golden Globes, McDonald’s set free a new ad campaign called “Signs,” which attempts to convey the idea that McDonald’s restaurants are intrinsically linked to community and American society by showing pictures of the signs outside of their restaurants during times of tragedy large and small. The text on the signs appeal to traditional American sentiments like “Thank You Veterans,” appeals to local plight with “Keep Jobs in Toledo,” and references to national tragedies such as “We Remember 9/11” and “Boston Strong.” This ad comes at a time when McDonald’s stock is a huge mess and sales are down nationally. Being a publically traded company, McDonald’s is answerable to their stockholders, and at a time like this they really couldn’t afford to take a step back and hope for the best. However, the ad created considerable blowback on social media after it aired, claiming that McDonald’s is using national tragedy to drive up their sales.

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This isn’t the first time in recent memory that a McDonald’s ad campaign prompted a social media uproar. In October, McDonald’s began running advertisements on YouTube titled “Our Food, Your Questions.” The purpose of the advertisement was to dispel popular myth about McDonald’s serving pink slime disguised as chicken nuggets and show consumers the actual origins of their food. Once again, social media wasn’t having it, and it led to an extremely funny piece on John Oliver’s show “Last Week Tonight” that I probably shouldn’t hyperlink because of the language.

If it wasn’t extremely clear by now, this latest case spells it out in extremely simple terms: McDonald’s cannot bring back consumers through a social media campaign. I understand that it is tempting considering the massive reach of social media in today’s economic environment, but McDonald’s became a giant during a time before social media and has continued to globalize and spread its reach long after. It is also worth noting that McDonald’s has done a fantastic job of changing its image to continue its appeal to Gen-X’ers and Millennials. When I was a kid, their restaurants were based around Happy Meals and Mighty Kids Meals. Now, most McDonald’s restaurants are designed to look like internet cafes and offer a pretty wide coffee selection for a fast food restaurant. Presently, my demographic is concerned with eating healthy meals, organic foods, and vegetarian options. In this regard, McDonald’s has failed to keep up with the times; but all of this needs to change through the menu – not by running social media campaigns attempting to convince the public that their food is healthy and their restaurants are staples of American society.

That said, it would be disingenuous to argue that no one eats at McDonald’s anymore because their menu isn’t healthy. Their profit margins may be shrinking, but they are still staggering. Fast, cheap food will always be a staple of the American diet because a lot of Americans need fast, cheap food. I recall a time when I was kid when my mother, who raised me on her own, would bring home McDonald’s one a week because it was cheap, better than nothing, and most of all because she didn’t feel inclined to cook after working and commuting for twelve hours in one day. Studies are extremely clear in this regard – low income Americans are more inclined to eat fast food because it is cheap and available. As long as there are Americans living near the poverty line, fast food will continue to exist. Personally, I don’t see this as a problem.

The majority of social media activism is created by journalists or bloggers who don’t live near the poverty line. It is easy for them to discredit McDonald’s because they have never been forced to live in a situation where fast food wasn’t just an option along the highway, but to many Americans it was a part of life. This is what the “Signs” ad attempts to convey – that through thick and thin, better and worse, McDonald’s has been there and it will always be there. The reaction to the ad is undoubtedly based on your personal views of McDonald’s. I don’t believe the ad was designed to change that, but rather to reaffirm your current opinion about the brand.

All I ask is that before you see the ad and make the assumption that this is a tactic to capitalize on tragedy to increase sales, please recognize that to so many Americans, McDonald’s is not simply a restaurant, it is a safety net – one that we appreciate and cherish, even if we don’t personally enjoy the product.

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