McDonald’s McBombs: Latest Brand Brouhaha is a Dog

Kansas City radio listeners had a front-row seat to a recent McDonald’s advertising gaffe set afire by social media. An ad introducing the fast-food giant’s new Chicken McBites not only didn’t work; it resulted in a vocal backlash against the company.

The radio ad, which aired for several days in the Kansas City market, read like this:

Voice 1: “Trying a brand-new menu item at McDonald’s isn’t risky. You know what’s risky? Petting a stray pit bull. Or shaving your head just to see how it would look. That’s risky. Naming your son Sue? Super risky. Giving your friends your Facebook password? Ultra risky. So trying a new menu item at McDonald’s is about a zero on the old Risker Scale.”

The ad continues for a few seconds, touting a special McBites promotion that ran from Jan. 30 – Feb. 5.

As the ad continued to air, more people caught on to the pit bull reference, prompting a vocal group of pit bull supporters to start a Facebook page. Pit bulls are often portrayed as senselessly violent creatures that roam the streets in search of their next victims; yet in reality, most dogs will bite if provoked—after all, it’s all about common sense.

What we like about this? McDonald’s swift response. They caught wind of the backlash quickly and issued an apology:

“The ad was insensitive in its mention of pit bulls,” said McDonald’s in a press release, according to AdAge. “We apologize. As soon as we learned of it, we tracked the source and had the local markets pull the ad immediately. We’ll do a better job next time. It’s never our intent to offend anyone with how we communicate news about McDonald’s.”

The ridiculous part? Even though the McBites promotion is over and the radio commercials are off the air, pit bull supporters are planning a rally at McDonald’s restaurants on Feb. 24. Seriously, people need to get a grip.

Mistakes happen. Poor judgment happens—on the part of brands and perhaps agencies handling their business. But consumers need to figure out what the heck it is that makes them happy. When a brand pulls a bonehead move, responds to public outcry, removes the offending ad (or whatever) and apologizes, do we really need to continue to excoriate them? To what end?

It’s kind of like when we work with brands in the social space. One of the first questions we ask of them is “What does success look like for you?” And we work to figure that out, before we get started. Because that’s how we know when we get there.  The same is true when something bad happens. Consumers who are up in arms about something should ask themselves, “What does a successful resolution look like?” And once a brand has done what makes sense to affect a resolution, let’s remind ourselves to be satisfied and collectively get off their backs.

Make no mistake, this was a bonehead move. And I understand why pit bull owners were upset. But seriously, do we really need for this to carry on? Eat at McDonald’s, don’t eat at McDonald’s, but they goofed. They removed the offending ad and they apologized. Quickly. Can we all just move on?

This is the second instance in just about 30 days that McDonald’s tested the waters on something and had it blow up on them in the social media space. Their promoted trends #MeettheFarmers and #McdStories didn’t work out so well. And Rick Wion has taken a lot of grief, but my hat’s off to him—I think he’s doing a terrific job of crisis management.

The McDonald’s McBites campaign serves as yet another reminder that companies of any size need to have a crisis plan that’s ready to implement at the drop of a hat. After all, even the most well intentioned campaigns can take an unpredicted swerve into bad press territory, and brands need to be prepared to do what they can to contain, respond to and move past the crisis.

My friend Anne Weiskopf wrote a great post about this called Six Keys to a Great Apology. And these six little steps can make all the difference in the world:

  1. Address the issue quickly – silence is not an option;
  2. Even if it is not directly your fault, apologize anyway;
  3. Intent matters—people are more likely to forgive an honest mistake;
  4. Identify the steps that are being taken (or will be taken) to fix the problem;
  5. Pick the right medium for you to be effective (e.g. a well-written apology is better than a poorly delivered video message);
  6. Continuously monitor all social and non-social media channels so you can continue to address the problem further if needed.

Although such public disasters are humiliating for any brand, there’s usually a valuable lesson (or lessons) to be learned when things don’t go as planned. And after the McBites disaster, McDonald’s will hopefully spend more time (and thought) on its advertising copy before the campaign is released to the public.

What are your thoughts on McDonald’s advertising gaffe? Are you like me and think people need to move on and leave it alone? Or do you think we need to continue to beat them up?

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  • Thanks for this great article Shelly. I think we do have a tendency to forget that brands have humans behind them, and humans are bound to make mistakes. But I am with you and believe that we should forgive them when they address the mistake promptly and appropriately.

    • Anonymous

      Saying “well said” doesn’t really seem right, since you’re agreeing with me … but I’ll say it anyway. I think we need to accept apologies when offered (and when they make sense) and move the heck on. But, as we know, some people are never satisfied.

  • Just a girl

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a McDonalds supporter for many reasons. But in this case, I think many consumers are simply looking for a reason to be mad. Not only was supposed to be funny but touching any stray dog isn’t a good idea. If they apologized, let it go. Too many people seem to take personal offense to something that didn’t involve them, in my opinion.

    • Anonymous

      I’m with you on this one 🙂

  • As a public relations professional now teaching the next generation of PR pros, all I can say is “Get a grip, consumers.” As has already been said, this is about people who simply enjoy being angry about something. McDonald’s acted quickly and appropriately. We make mistakes as communicators. If we’re smart, we react quickly, take responsibility, and learn from the “mistake” (even if it truly wasn’t a “mistake”).

    • Anonymous

      Agree! One million percent.

  • Agree that

    • Anonymous

      I agree. But that’s like telling PETA supporters to simmer down. When it’s a cause you’re passionate about (even pit bulls), I suppose the sky’s the limit. But this does seem a little over the top.

      As I mentioned before, what fascinates me is not how easily offended people are, but the burden that’s on brands to listen, monitor and craft a response. I suppose that makes sense – since that’s what I do!!

      Thanks for coming by, Jennifer!

  • Kaneesha

    It seems to me that we have become a generation of easily offended people.

  • Wow. Talk about over-reacting! I don’t see poor judgement here. I see of group of overly sensitive people who need to get a grip…or a hobby. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that McDonald’s has no reason to apologize.  This was not racial, the was not sexist and this was not discriminatory to humans in any way, shape or form.

    Seriously, people take offense over everything these days. Pretty soon, we won’t be able to say anything at all without offending someone, somewhere. The more that brands have to bow to this kind of pressure, the less creativity we are going to see in marketing and advertising and that’s a shame.

    • Anonymous

      Did you hear the uproar about the Super Bowl spots involving greyhounds? Very similar situation. And, unfortunately, I think we’ll see more of this rather than less, and that brands will have to be very vigilant so that things like this don’t get even more out of hand. 

      I’m not a pit bull fan, and would probably have ignored this even if I was, but each to his or her own, I suppose. 

      I’m more interested in how brands deal with stuff like this from a crisis comms standpoint 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by – always nice to hear what others think!

    • Paige, I agree with EVERYTHING you said.  My face was contorting into a thousand confused and bewildered expressions.  Besides, isn’t petting a stray pit bull risk?  Shelly, it’s a great post, very informative, but I wouldn’t have apologized for this…especially if I’m representing McDonald’s!  People will always get offended, but people will never stop going to McDonald’s, 🙂

      • Shelly

        Thanks Sam. I don’t think this apology was a big deal, and McD didn’t dwell on it. People are crazy. 

  • Anonymous

    This isn’t ridiculous, it’s smart.  As mentioned in the post, pit bulls had a problematic public image long before McDonald’s aired their ad, and the savvy pit bull owners are simply capitalizing on the gaffe to gain exposure for their message and improve their own brand image. 

    • Shelly

      Yes. They most certainly are doing that!

  • Wow, not to sound insensitive, but with all the great causes to rally around, this article just made me more embarrassed for the pit bull owners than for McDonald’s. Apology accepted (and fairly unneeded.) Now, I might just eat there! I didn’t voice this nearly as eloquently as Paige did though.
    You bring the most interesting things to light, Shelly!

  • Guest

    As a PR professional and dog community activist, I would say McDonald’s could have avoided this if they had just left out what kind of dog the stray was. Pin pointing a specific breed was really unnecessary, but pulling it from running and apologizing was appropriate. No more should be demanded of McDonalds.

  • Shelly, I wasn’t sure where you were going…meaning, I didn’t expect the “get a grip and back off McDonald’s” angle but wholeheartedly agree. Leave it to you to bring a dose of sobriety and perspective to any situation (Happy Hour at The Peanut not withstanding). ; )

  • MRyan

    Shelly, enjoyed your article.  However, at the risk of sounding overly-picky, I’d take the “get over it” argument one step further.  There were words in your last paragraph that struck me as too dramatic:  “public disasters” – I’d argue that maybe “minor public backlash” is more like it.  And “humiliating?”  The creative misstep was just that; it wasn’t really humiliating, was it?  As for “McBites disaster,” again, disaster seems so over-stated.  If the copy in this radio ad was disastrous, then we’ve all got to get a grip!
    All that being said, I understood what you were trying to say.  I just kept thinking, let’s keep disasters in perspective.  And when a company makes a minor mistake, seems to me a minor apology is all that’s needed.

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  • I’m a PR professional and a mom to a 10-year-old sweet pit bull. I’m not going to lie — I was outraged when I first learned of the commercial. I tweeted about it, and asked my Facebook friends to call McDonald’s if they too found this offensive. You have to understand something here… I’ve had my dog for 10 years. He is my best friend. My baby. Maybe that’s more than some people can comprehend, but to me, I love him more than a lot of people here on this Earth. I’ve walked my dog around the neighborhood plenty of times, and people always seem to be surprised that he is so loving and sweet-natured. It’s a battle I encounter damn near every time I’m out in public with him. I’m not saying every pit bull is like him. I’ve read the headlines, just like everyone else. But no one wants to talk about the owners — just the breed. So you’ll have to forgive me when I take offense to a mention in an ad that was completely unnecessary to begin with. We’re fighting a bigger battle here, people. 

    However, it was because of all of this outrage that many of us pit bull owners spoke up. The ad got pulled. We won, right? For some of us, the fight doesn’t end here. I can see how others are angry, and want to continue boycotting McDonald’s. That’s their choice, isn’t it? Yes, McDonald’s was quick to apologize. Kudos to their team, honestly. Would I have rather seen the franchise apologize and then offer to make a donation to a pit bull organization to help overcome this stereotype? Yes, no doubt. Will they do that? Not likely. 

    It’s not just McDonald’s. We have to battle every negative stereotype thrown out there by the media and other narrow-minded “influencers” — every. single. day. At least respect the fact that there are still passionate people out here in the world who are willing to stand up for what they believe in — even if it is just a four-legged, furry friend. 🙂

  • Shravan Singh