McDonald’s is not lovin’ it.
Following consumer complaints, a regional ad for its Big Mac that parodies mental illness — featuring a familiar photo of a woman who appears to be crying with her head in her hand — has been yanked by the fast-food giant from Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority subway trains. The headline in the ad states: “You’re not alone.” But the small print underneath says, “Millions of people love the Big Mac.”
Worst of all: The ad includes a toll-free phone number that connects consumers to McDonald’s customer satisfaction line. A recording asks consumers if they want to share an “experience” that they had at a McDonald’s restaurant.
“The worst possible situation is if someone in an emotional crisis were to see that image and call that number,” says Bob Carolla, spokesman for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “It would be a cruel mistake.”
Mistake, indeed. The public relations blunder comes at a time other big-name brands have made similar PR miscues. A recent Ford ad in India depicted sexy women tied up in the back of a Ford Figo. Nabisco has received complaints about a Wheat Thins spot featuring a puppet who is so obsessed with the savory crackers that it must be tied in a straitjacket by mental health workers. And now this McDonald’s ad, which appeared on subway trains in the Boston area.
One PR expert is baffled by the McDonald’s ad. “This is honest-to-goodness God-awful,” says Katharine Delahaye Paine, chief marketing officer at News Group, a social-media monitoring company. “You don’t make fun of ads for non-profits.”
McDonald’s has apologized, blaming its regional agency for posting an ad that it did not approve. “We can confirm this ad was not approved by McDonald’s,” the statement says. “As soon as we learned about it, we asked that it be taken down immediately.”
Pam Hamlin, president of the Boston office of the ad agency Arnold Worldwide — which remains McDonald’s regional agency — also apologized, in a statement. “Arnold apologizes for its mistake to McDonald’s and to anyone who was offended by the ad,” she says. “We’ve addressed the issue and have improved our approval process.”
But the damage has been done.
Paine, the PR specialist, says McDonald’s needs to be more transparent and not just finger-point at its ad agency. “In an ideal world, they would be more transparent about the approval process” that was not obeyed by the agency, she says.
Carolla, the NAMI spokesman, says that advertising agencies tend to be the worst offenders in perpetuating mental illness stereotypes. “Either they don’t think,” he says, “or they just don’t care.”