How the McDonald’s ‘bereavement’ ad was flawed

McDonald’s pulled their ad about a boy and his father due to a social and traditional media ‘storm’. This meant that an important conversation (how to bond with a parent who’s no longer with us) didn’t happen and their investment was wasted.

Looking more sensibly at the social conversation suggests this was more of a storm in a teacup, and that a slightly sharper execution and more effective stakeholder management would have led to a much better outcome.


What happened?

McDonald’s ran an advert telling the story of a young boy asking his mum what his deceased father was like. Within days the BBC published the article “McDonald’s apologises for ‘offensive’ television advert” after being contacted by Grief Encounter (a bereavement support charity). The article drew on the “countless calls” Grief Encounter had received and claims of a social media ‘outrage’.

Over the next two days, the story was picked up by most of the mainstream media, trade press and some internationals. Most went with a more extreme narrative, along the lines of “McDonald’s pulls dead dad ad” (albeit with very similar content).

Running alongside all this, of course, was reaction, comment and a lively debate across social media.

The result? It looked like McDonald’s had offended a lot of people and they were quick to pull the ad. And by promoting this negative interpretation of the ad, the media helped shape the initial reaction to it. They’d set the tone which might help explain the immediate fall in measures of brand reputation and buzz.


OK, what really happened?

At the time of writing, the ASA had received 267 complaints, significantly fewer than other comparable campaigns, and they felt it didn’t contravene their guidelines. So, what was really going on? If it was really this offensive, surely the ASA would have taken a different stance.

To get another angle we explored the social conversation in a bit more depth to see how people were actually reacting to it.

Most of the discussion took place in a few main areas: Twitter (visceral and immediate), YouTube (seen by nearly 1m, with 1k comments) and the Guardian’s comment section. We took a random sample of 1,000 comments from social media, read them all and analysed what was being said and why (we excluded RTs and obvious industry commentary to focus on different, personal reactions).


How are people really reacting?

From the relevant comments, we found that 32% didn’t like the advert (51% were ambivalent, 17% liked it). But this doesn’t mean they were offended.

On the contrary, only 6% claimed offence – and only 1 person based their reaction in a personal experience of bereavement. This is odd as we found that those who did mention a bereavement tended to connect positively (11%) with the ad.

Only 3% of people called for it to be banned, contrasting to the 13% who defended the ad against what they saw as an ‘outrageous response’ to it.

Most of the people who didn’t like it did so because they thought it wasn’t very good – not because they were offended. Of those who didn’t like the ad:

  • 32% found the language and tone of the ad too negative, they didn’t like their emotions being used to sell burgers.
  • 25% of thought it was poor taste, but not offensive, and that distinction is important.
  • 23% thought it was just poor: badly executed, naive, silly, or just generally “not good”.

“Agreed. It isn’t offensive. Personally, the ad had very little effect on me. Who can honestly be surprised by ad agency cynicism? It’s certainly in generally poor taste, but marketing is invariably always in poor taste of one sort or another.”

“I don’t think the new McDonalds advert is ‘controversial’. I just think it’s sh*te”.


So what?

This feels like a missed opportunity.

A great ad can push the boundaries of what’s OK to talk about. The loss of a loved one is a difficult topic. An ad with McDonald’s reach could have made it easier to find the words.

“I liked the #mcdonalds advert, I lost my father when I was 12 and I don’t see any problem with the advert touching on memories.”

“I’d heard that some found this ad offensive. I lost my father a little over 12 years ago, and even though I was already a man at 22 when he died, this ad only helped remind me of him. I don’t find this ad offensive, quite the opposite, really. Thank you, McDonald’s, for helping me remember my dad.”

“As someone who went through child bereavement, I found this advert to be very touching. Even having something small in common, such as a favourite meal, can mean the world. Even the smallest part of that person living on in you is enough to make you feel proud of yourself and happy that this person who is no longer with you is in living within you in some form or another. I know a McDonald’s meal can seem rather silly but I really don’t see the exploitation here or how this could possibly be offensive.”


We think there are six main points to take from this.


  • Tighten the execution. The father’s death is clearly not recent, so the ad was in no way meant to be about bereavement. But the negative comparisons in the ad, insufficiently balanced by the shared common ground allowed it to be interpreted as being about grief. Which meant people focused on it, perpetuating this interpretation. The meaning of the underlying script was diluted by the negative dialogue, the gloomy colours, and the sentimental music.


  • Engage with the right stakeholders. When dealing with a subject like this you should be brave and thoughtful in equal measure. A conversation with Grief Encounter (easy to Google, search for ‘grief charity’) would have helped bring them onboard. Having a point of view on something that is human is good, backing down and not engaging seriously outside the brand makes it seem superficial. If they had done this – they could have raised proper awareness for something whilst drawing attention to the point they should have been celebrating – memories.


  • Avoid own-goals. McDonald’s has been campaigning about food quality for years, yet this ad talks about death without cause – enabling many to jump on the ‘fast food means poor health’ bandwagon.


  • Keep it on-brand. The execution went too far towards grief and away from nostalgia. This was compounded by the way the mum compares the son unfavourably to his Dad – the punches just keep coming (‘your dad was…1. Big, cuddly, tall. 2. Big hands. 3. Never scruffy, always smart. 4. Shining shoes. 5. Good at football. 6. Captain. 7. A right catch. 8. A wow with all the girls. 9. Brown eyes’). This jars and makes the final Fillet o Fish comparison seem too weak, too cynical.


  • Prepare. This is an ad about bereavement from a fast food company. It might as well have had a sign on its back saying “kick me”. Had the execution been a tad sharper and with the right PR preparation, they could have capitalised on the attention while defending its position. Apologise to anyone who has been inadvertently offended, but defend the nostalgia stance and stick to the brand


  • Listen and reflect. Some heavy hitters leapt on the chance to bash McDonald’s and quickly made this look like a big deal. But a thoughtful reading of the social conversation shows that overall, the outrage barely merits the name. Social media should be used to learn about people, not jump at first sight.


A final thought, fast food or fake news?

There’s a risk that organisations today fail to take a firm point of view because of the amplification that social and traditional media have on anything that gets a moment of ‘noise’ from the online space. There’s a lack of real considered debate versus out-loud protesting and shouting against things. Traditional media can actually make fake news worse because it gives voice to something. Would McDonald’s have pulled this if it hadn’t been reported in traditional media outlets?


About us

We’re an insights agency that uses social data to help brands + their agencies find new opportunities for growth.

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