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(Not) Loving It

By Erin J. Mullikin

If 2016 was the year of tragic celebrity deaths, 2017 is proving to be the year of canned commercials from companies who loom large in our cultural imagination. In April of this year, Pepsi had to pull their ad featuring Kendall Jenner stopping a violent altercation at a Black Lives Matter protest by handing a police officer a can of Pepsi. While the commercial sparked criticism, and rightly so, it also accomplished a major, seemingly impossible feat: it “united the internet.” Basically everyone admits that Pepsi’s commercial was just wrong.

Immediately following the Pepsi fiasco, McDonald’s released a commercial in the U.K. that focuses on a teenage boy who wants to know more about his deceased father. The commercial begins with the boy looking through a box, presumably containing objects belonging to his father, which prompts him to ask his mother to tell him about his father. As the mother and son walk through their town, each little tidbit about the deceased father is matched up with the son not being like his father. The father had shiny shoes; the son has scuffed Converse sneakers. The father had brown eyes; the son has blue. The father was popular with the ladies; girls barely notice the son. The father was captain of his football (soccer) team; we, of course, have to painfully watch as the son fails to kick an out-of-bounds ball back to a playing team.

The culminating moment of the narrative happens when the mother and son are in a McDonald’s. The son is eating a Filet-O-Fish when his mother tells him that was his father’s favorite, too. We get to witness the mother seeing this singular resemblance between her dead husband and her son.

Unlike the outrageous Pepsi ad, this McDonald’s commercial has not brought the Internet together in an undivided front. There is a clear delineation between those who believe the ad is exploitive and those who see the commercial as “an admirably dense meditation on grief and loss.” McDonald’s pulled the commercial after criticism.

2016 was also the year that showed many of us in America how deep divisions run. Due to the election, divisions in social thought were highlighted in unprecedented ways. From highly visible protest marches to the recent events in Charlottesville, VA to the less noticeable subreddit threads, people are being far more vocal about their beliefs, identity, social justice, and the ways in which they view the world around them. While grief itself isn’t exactly a social justice issue, “exploiting childhood bereavement” certainly is. According to Shelley Gilbert, founder of Grief Encounter (an organization that supports grieving children and their families), “What [McDonald’s has] done is exploited childhood bereavement as a way to connect with young people and surviving parents alike …We have already received countless phone calls this morning, with parents telling us their bereaved children have been upset by the advert and alienated by McDonald’s as a brand that wants to emotionally manipulate its customers.”

This is not the first time McDonald’s has missed the mark in their advertising campaigns. They have been under fire in the past for targeting African American communities in “misguided” and “superficial” ways. What this ultimately says about McDonald’s is that their micro-targeting strategies still need major revision. Their advertisements are resonating with part of their audience, but other parts of their audience are vehemently opposed.

The stories you tell have a relationship to cultures and communities, identities and ideologies, and technologies and media. It’s vital that you engage critically with the opinions and voices of others as you develop a greater understanding of how your story will be interpreted by the various components of its audience. With both Pepsi and McDonald’s, the narratives they developed in their ads sought to connect with a viable audience; however, both ads failed to do that, and have been largely deemed as insensitive, reflecting poorly on their companies and their brands. The same care and concern due to particular advertisements should also be present in building your brand narrative. It’s important to be in constant conversation about your own identity as a company in order to arrive at a deeper cultural awareness and find ways to communicate meaning that resonates with, and even improves, cultural norms.

A can of Pepsi will not end racism and police brutality. And a fish sandwich cannot sooth heartbreak. As Amy B. Wang states in The Washington Post, “Potential pitfalls arise when companies take a stand on an issue or try to capture a trend or movement that doesn’t feel organic or genuine. The McDonald’s commercial fell flat for some because, in the end, ‘there’s no particular reason that that story had to do with the brand,’ [as] Jonah Berger [an associate professor of marketing at the Wharton School] said.”

Good storytelling should be emotional, but it can’t just be that. It also has to tie into a larger message about the company and its product. Brand storytelling, whether it is evinced in a commercial, the customer experience, or a company’s website, will reach both hearts and minds. What will you do with that power?

Erin J. Mullikin is an associate at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, let Woden help. Read our free StorytellingBlueprint, or send us an email at to discuss how we can help tell your story.