Sandra Ericson|Jan 14, 2015

When McDonald’s new ad campaign aired during the recent NFL Playoff game, it caught my attention right away. It features the iconic burger chains’ roadway arches signs imprinted with messages of hope and gratitude.

Some of the words reflect national moments, including “Boston Strong” and “We Remember 911.” Others are more local and personal – “Happy 95th Birthday Woody We Love You” and “It’s a Girl Rosalie Kay.” All it took was the musical element – a school choir singing “Carry On” by Fun. – to bring a tear to my eye. Our friends watching the game together shared the same sentiment – we loved the ads.

That’s why I was surprised to read and hear multiple reports of backlash against the campaign. Some called it tone deaf, tasteless and marketing propaganda.

Why? I thought the ads made perfect sense, especially after McDonald’s confirmed that all the signs were real. An interactive element of the new campaign directs you to a Tumblr page to learn the story behind each sign.

The chain may be a large corporation, but there can be something special about your neighborhood McDonald’s. It’s where I attended countless birthday parties and scrambled to during our high school lunch breaks. Perhaps the new ad campaign resonated with me because I’ve witnessed these customized signs before. In Hampton, Va. in 2009, when the band Phish reunited after four years, the local McDonald’s posted a sign that read, “We have Phish.” The reunion certainly wasn’t a national moment, but it was exciting to see the whole community in Hampton – McDonald’s included – get behind it.

Perhaps the backlash against the ad is a generational thing. After all, there’s no denying that McDonald’s profits have taken a hit with today’s Conscious Consumers rebelling against GMO foods, and supply chains that aren’t on the up and up. In certain markets and age groups, some people wouldn’t be caught dead in a McDonald’s and go to great efforts to shield their families from it.

By the same token, perhaps my reaction to the ad is tempered by the simple fact that I don’t hate McDonald’s. One of the tweets in response to the signs campaign said that McDonald’s was actually killing more people (ostensibly via the obesity epidemic) than those events it was remembering. This just goes to show how a brand’s perceived reputation can matter much more than facts. In actuality, a Big Mac and large fries comes in at 1,040 calories, while a millennial-loved Chipotle burrito and chips is 1,695 calories.

Is it possible to turn the tide of bad perception? Can McDonald’s prevent adding to the ranks of those who hate the brand? McDonald’s must have thought this was all possible a few months ago when it launched a campaign that went head-to-head against the most prevalent myths about the chain.

No matter what McDonald’s does though, they are bound to get some negative reactions. For the most recent signs campaign, Ad Week employed two vendors to measure the brand’s sentiment following the commercials. The data showed the sentiment was a wash – mostly neutral with negative sentiment up a tiny bit. At this point, perhaps McDonald’s even welcomes the controversy bringing additional impressions to their ad campaign.

In the end, no amount of marketing is going to change the fact that McDonald’s must walk the walk to enact real change– and it’s got a very steep mountain to climb.

The Conscious Consumer is here to stay and growing by the day. Brands must examine how they align with this audience – it’s why rbb launched a new division focusing on just that.

What was your reaction to the McDonald’s sign campaign? Let us know in the comments!


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