Are McDonald’s Recent “Fails” a Strategy?

Bob Dylan sings, “She knows there’s no success like failure/ and that failure’s no success at all” in his song She Belongs To Me.  It’s one of those great Dylan lines that is both totally captivating and essentially meaningless. But, while it is more of a clever construction than an actual insight, it has the tendency to reverberate in an interesting way in the modern culture of the internet and social media, where getting people’s attention takes either a massive dedication to quality content and breathtaking consistency or a single instance of hilarious ineptitude. #Fail is often the most successful thing there is these days.

That is why the recent failings of McDonald’s marketers are fascinating to me. The most recent one was the Black Friday twitter fail. If you missed it, McDonald’s Twitter account was set to make some deal offer for the biggest day of the year and the poor person in their social media department hit send before… oh, you know… adding whatever deal was planned, resulting in- “Black Friday **** Need copy and link****” going out to the world. Predictably, people jumped online to mock the ubiquitous fast-food restaurant and slap together sarcastic memes. But buried in the L.A. Times article linked to above is the casual observation that-

“Some social and community managers even expressed their empathy for the situation, which although embarrassing proved to be an excellent source of social traffic”

That simple mistake drove traffic for one of the largest companies in the world. And beyond that, it is not embarrassing in any way that is actually costly to the McDonald’s brand. No one tampered with the food or did anything else that would injure the company in a real and substantial way. It is the kind of innocent mistake that is easy to sympathize with and somehow actually reminds us that a restaurant chain is so mammoth that it feeds one-percent of the earth’s population every day is made up of actual people, some of them just as bad using twitter as we are.

The net results of this fail are:

  • A social media traffic surge
  • The brand being talked about on the biggest shopping day of the year
  • A sympathetic, humanizing moment for a corporate behemoth

No Success like failure.

If the Black Friday tweet was intentional (I doubt that it was) it was social media genius of the highest order.  Though this instance was probably unintentional, I am willing to bet that somewhere out there, a sharp-minded social media manager is looking for an opportunity to fake a fail like this one for the attention it will bring.

If that sounds paranoid, just hang on a minute because the Black Friday tweet is only the tip of my McDonald’s social-media-conspiracy-iceberg. The real stroke of possibly-evil genius was the companies “mishandling” of the Rick and Morty promotion.

First, a quick recap of the incident. The Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim show Rick and Morty, a dark comedy about evil super-genius Rick, revealed in the third-season premiere that Rick was doing all his evil deeds to acquire the Szechuan sauce McDonald’s had released as part of a Mulan promo back in late 1990’s when that film was in theaters.  McDonalds, a company never known for being hip and which has a complicated relationship with today’s younger costumers, saw a chance to look cool and edgy. They set-up a limited re-release of the sauce to satisfy the demand of the rabid fans of this cult TV show and offered the product at select stores on October 7. The “limited” release turned out to be far too limited for the shows fans and they raged against the company online until the company was forced to apologize and promise more of the now-deified sauce.

As Claire McNear’s article for The Ringer that I linked to above points out, nobody came out looking great here. It is really hard to imagine that this was an engineered move to attract attention because mega-brands don’t take risks as a rule and intentionally infuriating a group of people to get people talking about your brand is an enormous risk.


We, as a culture, are talking about a McNugget sauce from an ad campaign for a bad Disney movie that came out around twenty years ago. The story got covered by CNN, The New York Times, The Ringer, Gizmodo, everyone. It was big news. Rick and Morty is a very popular cable comedy, one of the most popular, in fact. But what counts as the audience for one of the most popular shows on television? Between three and four million viewers a night. McDonalds feed around 70 million a day, everyday. Among viewers, the subsection of die-hard fans- the ones who waited in line for Szechuan sauce- is a small percentage. Even if that percentage is as high as thirty percent of the total audience, that is still just a million people. Alienating a million people is probably not something any brand wants to do, but would it be worth the risk if it attracted a million other people who didn’t care at all about the product before?

After all, die-hard fans die hard. They might be mad that they didn’t get Szechuan sauce, but they are going to just stop wanting it. They are coming for the sauce regardless. The whole problem was there no being enough of it, after all.  From the evil-social-media-marketing-conspiracy perspective, the beauty of this “fail” is that I now want it (well, a little anyway). I have never watched Rick and Morty and I rarely eat McDonald’s, buying it only in desperation (or inebriation, maybe). Yet, because the fine folks at McDonald’s created this sensation and then failed massively in delivering it, I am now interested in two things that were not even previously on my radar. I am certain I am not the only one. A brand like McDonald’s could spend millions on ads and social strategies and never reach me in any meaningful way. I know what McDonald’s is. I have known McDonald’s as long as I have been alive. Their ubiquity is their biggest liability. They are just part of the landscape. They are as easily ignored as telephone poles. I might eat their food occasionally but I do not care about them at all. Or I didn’t care about them at all until they let down thousands of fans of a TV show I have never seen. That may not be success, but sometimes, as the man says, there is no success like failure.

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