WcDonalds? The Dangers of Faux-Progressive PR Campaigns

International Women’s Day was first proposed in 1909 by the Socialist Party of America and adopted as an official holiday a year later by the International Socialist Women’s Conference. Until 1975, IWD was celebrated annually in the countries that constituted the Soviet Bloc. The holiday’s focus was to celebrate female workers and their unique historical struggles. In light of this history, it’s amusing to imagine how the original holiday’s founders would react to the fact that one of the biggest and most ubiquitous bastions of capitalism used the holiday as a publicity stunt—and a poorly-conceived one at that.

The Campaign:

The past several years have seen an extreme shift in conversation in American culture. Social justice issues are much more popular now than they were a decade ago. Many consumers extend their social justice support to which businesses they choose to patronize. According to the 2017 Cone Communications CSR Study, 87% of Americans would buy a product because the manufacturer advocated for an issue they cared about, while 76% would refuse to patronize a business that supports a value contrary to theirs. In light of the recent resurgence of feminism in the national conversation (dubbed “fourth wave feminism” by some scholars and exemplified by internet-based movements such as “Me Too”), many corporations have released special campaigns, promotions, or social media posts celebrating International Women’s Day.
On March 8th, 2018, McDonald’s announced that (for one day only) they would flip their iconic “golden arches” upside down, changing the “M” for “McDonald’s” to a “W”—ostensibly for “Women.” The official statement from McDonald’s read:

“We recognize the extraordinary contribution of women. From employees and franchisees, to suppliers and community partners, to our customers, we are inspired by your strength and leadership. In the U.S., we’re proud to share that 6 out of 10 restaurant managers are women. They run the McDonald’s business each and every day. So, in honor of women everywhere, we’re flipping our iconic logo for International Women’s Day.

Today, we celebrate you.”

The Reactions:

The reactions to this campaign were swift and devastating. Twitter users derided the campaign as confusing, bizarre, and ultimately meaningless.

Other users condemned McDonald’s for investing time and money in flipping the M while refusing to pay employees (including female employees) a living wage.

What Went Wrong:

If Americans tend to support corporations that speak out in support of popular political movements, and if feminism is currently a very popular movement, then why was the McDonald’s IWD promotion such a massive failure?
Some prominent examples of successful, socially conscious business campaigns include Always’ ‘Like a Girl’, Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’, Burger King’s ‘Whopper Neutrality’ and Coca Cola’s multilingual ‘America The Beautiful’ advertisement. All four advertisements used emotional or humorous appeals to persuade the audience of the validity of the causes they’re talking about, and to prove—by extension—what a conscious company they are. Additionally, some corporations have made social and economic justice their product strategy: TOMS donates one pair of shoes for every pair bought, Starbucks made the switch to all “ethically sourced” coffee, and Intel uses only conflict-free microchips that don’t contain metals or materials obtained from mines that abuse workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The trouble with progressive or socially conscious campaigns by major corporations is when—as with McDonald’s—they are perceived by consumers as transparent bids for social justice cred, rather than as an (at least plausible) attempt to effect actual social or political change. While all of the aforementioned successful campaigns were, first and foremost, advertisements for the company and its products, they still managed to display some amount of thoughtfulness or sincerity about the causes they were supporting. Compared to these successful PR campaigns, the McDonald’s IWD promotion was both confusing and lacked tangible benefit. How would flipping the M’s directly serve women? How would this even raise awareness about women’s issues? It was completely unclear, therefore absurd and humorous.

How Could Social Listening Have Prevented This?

In the case of PR campaigns that rely on social movements, the line between a successful campaign and a source of public derision is incredibly thin. Many socially conscious young people take a cynical attitude toward corporate social justice campaigns, or indeed to any situation they feel exploits their political leanings for a profit.

With the knowledge that PR campaigns centered around social issues can be very tricky, a Social Listening assessment to gauge the public’s reactions to socially conscious PR campaigns could have empowered the McDonald’s marketing team to anticipate reaction and make more informed decisions. Such an analysis might have uncovered learnings from the now-infamous Pepsi advertisement that attempted to capitalize on the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests. The writers of this advertisement did not seem to understand what the young people involved with BLM were protesting, or why, and ended up telegraphing the very muddled and offensive message that a beautiful young model sharing a Pepsi with police could end police brutality. In an attempt to appear socially conscious and hip, while avoiding a firm stance on an extremely controversial issue, Pepsi produced a confusing, tone-deaf advertisement that angered both sides of the police brutality debate.
Successful socially conscious campaigns are possible, but Social Media research is essential to avoid the missteps of those who have flopped. For more information on how Anexinet can help your organization setup a social listening strategy to achieve intelligent insights that help drive your marketing campaigns moving forward, please reach out to us. We’d love to get you started.

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Phono Image610 239 8100