McDonald’s Big Mac ad hits a new low

From the Orange Line, Boston subway (photo by DY)

From the Orange Line, Boston subway (photo by DY)

McDonald’s is now pitching Big Macs by making fun of public service ads for people who may need mental health counseling.

Here’s the ad I saw while riding the Orange Line of the Boston subway on Sunday: It features a woman looking down with her head buried in her hand, with the text including (1) a large main caption “You’re Not Alone,” (2) a much smaller caption “Millions of people love the Big Mac,” and (3) an 800 phone number at the bottom. (Yes, I called it. It’s McD’s corporate phone number.)

I don’t think I’m being oversensitive or too “PC” about this. If you ride the subway regularly, you often see public service ads depicting a person in obvious distress, captioned with a few supportive words, and listing a phone number to reach a sympathetic ear. We’re living in difficult times. There are a lot of people who are struggling with their mental and emotional health. They may be highly stressed out, depressed, or even suicidal.

The ad writers and executives in McDonald’s high-priced marketing operation missed the boat badly on this one. I’m sorry, but the ad is just too close to the real thing to be funny.


April 10 update: McDonald’s has responded by saying this was part of an ad campaign that never got formal approval from corporate central, and they’ve ordered the ads pulled. Details here from Eric Randall at Boston Magazine, who has been following the story. (It sounds like McD’s will be be revisiting their protocols in working with advertisers because of this.)

At this point I’m a little bemused by how this story has turned mini-viral. Popular Boston blog Universal Hub and Time magazine’s Brad Tuttle also picked up the story, and I had to decline an interview with Boston’s Channel 5 News because I’m out of town.

I deliberately tried to write the post in a way that was pointed but non-inflammatory, so it’s quite interesting to see how something like this grows legs.


April 11 update: And the Boston Business Journal‘s Galen Moore pulled the story together, including more about the Arnold advertising firm apparently responsible for the snafu.


April 12 update: To my surprise, the story has gone viral, with coverage ranging from ABC News to the Daily Mail over in the U.K. In addition, the mental health community has been weighing in. Here’s the lede from Marie Szaniszlo’s piece in the Boston Herald:

Mental health advocates yesterday blasted a McDonald’s ad on the MBTA that appears at first to be a public service announcement targeting people suffering from depression.

“It’s really too bad because it trivializes the whole issue of depression,” said Julie Totten, executive director of Waltham-based Families for Depression Awareness, which has been running an ad of its own on the T for its Strides Against Stigma Walk on April 27 at Boston University. “We’re trying to say when you need help, it’s not a laughing matter. We don’t want people to feel stigmatized or made fun of.”

49 responses

  1. Probably because Massachusetts down plays Emotional Illness,if it did it would reconize the truma Discrimination in the workplace causes and actually do something

  2. This is indeed shameless. It not only makes fun of mental health outreach ads, but it trivializes mental health problems such as addiction. Suppose you are struggling with an addiction and thinking of seeking help. This ad implies that your problem is no worse than craving a Big Mac. Given recent research that shows the genuine addictive properties of fats and sugars in junk food, you would think the corporate big-wigs at McDonald’s would want to avoid such comparisons

  3. Bob makes a good point about fast food addiction and negative corporate PR, but I appreciate the irony in this ad, especially because a good portion of my family have brain chemistry disorders.

    These disorders are physical illnesses which science has yet to fully understand. Oversimplifying “mental illness” with sappy ads is useless, like preaching to someone with a broken leg that they would be healed if they just weren’t so stubborn about getting counselling.

    I give McDonald’s props for playing on this absurdity. That doesn’t mean that I’d run out for a Big Mac any time soon, though. A clever ad doesn’t trump common sense.

  4. I tend to agree that McDonald’s displaying of someone in emotional distress with subtitles that essentially advertise the product is in poor taste.

    For those who have eating disorders, as well as mental health issues, this ad may be interpreted as trivializing these populations’ pain and suffering.

    Moreover, I see the ad as a marketing tool that someone at the corporation sees as clever. So, if I am in distress, perhaps, I should mood alter by purchasing a Big Mac. And if I have an eating disorder, gosh, all I have to do is binge and purge.

  5. As someone being treated for major depression and anxiety — coincidentally activated and exacerbated by longterm and continuing workplace abuse, for which management assumes absolutely no responsibility — I couldn’t’ agree more. We have a long way to go in developing a knowledgeable and humane attitude to mental illnesses — including recognizing the role it often plays in the perpetuators of workplace abuse. It would do all of us good to learn more about mental illnesses — especially personality disorders which often are present in perpetuators of workplace abuse. Perpetuators of workplace abuse are often not just “tough bosses”; often they have major unrecognized mental illnesses. To learn about these is one essential step in protection against this epidemic of workplace abuse for which many in the workplace are paying a steep price. There is power in collectively recognizing a spade for a spade and calling it just that. Thank you for your consideration of this message.

    • Omg Gail,you just told my story,i am a victim of workplace Abuse and just as you said,Not only did my employer downplay the complaint,after years of continued abuse,i filed a claim with the MCAD and the Company Fired me a month later.My Anxiety and Depression has hit an all time high,my life has changed completely.
      This Company Tormented me for years until i could no longer hide it and now the Company claims they did nothing wrong

  6. Last week, after enduring almost nine years of abuse by my immediate supervisor, whom I do assess as being a sociopath with sadistic features, I was terminated.

    The reason given was not accurate, as well as being a blatant lie. Before this most recent incident I had just returned to work after an eight working days sick leave of absence due to a surgery my daughter had to undergo.

    During my time off, I truly think my nervous system calmed down so much so that when I returned and she engaged in, yet, another assault on my character, my response was very forthright via an e-mail that highlighted my experience of her over the past several years, specifically giving examples of the toxic patterns, what the outcomes were, as well as what the outcomes could have been, still can be if we engaged in more appropriate behavior with one another.

    Moreover, I described what has become a PTSD cluster of symptomology that I struggle with to both my supervisor, as well as the executive director, stating that this most recent incident triggered problematic levels of panic and anxiety in me, with the fear that this longstanding issue is not going to be remedied.

    For the past few months our interactions seemed moderately appropriate, although I knew I had to be careful of her, as every so often her behavior would surface, but in a more modified form. So, when the most recent assault occurred, and it was as vicious as the earlier years, I lost all hope that our relationship could improve.

    Also, I provided an outline of what I needed in order to move forward which would accommodate the work needed to be accomplished, given the roles that perform with one another.
    Within a week, I was terminated. My hyperviligence had relaxed during the time I had off, so she was able to manufacture an allegation, for which I didn’t have an e-mail verification that supported the sequential facts, which is typically what I do in order to protect myself.

    Having endured this viciousness, it has become abundantly clear to me that our rights as employees have been profoundly eroded and continue to erode as we strive to engage in productive employment and maintain our home lives during increased economic hardships.

  7. It would help if this ad ACTUALLY came from McDonald’s. They have not, nor ever will put out an advertisement of any sort with their corporate phone number on it. Nice try by whoever put it up; clearly they have caused you some angst with this “fake” advertisement”……so gullible. SMH.

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  9. This is the reason that I left McDonalds. After 8 years of working for the company I was bullied by a coworker and after i finally stood up for myself then my gm said I was the one that was causing the problems. Then he wanted to transfer me instead of getting rid or even discipline the problem. So an ad like this does not surprise me at all MCD is changing and not in a good way. I really feel sorry for the good people that have to stay there cause they need a job.

  10. I think this ad is hilarious. Really. Apparently it was a part of a larger marketing campaign where they replaced every ad on the train [lawyers, eye exams, education, etc] with a McDonald’s spoof. So obviously they weren’t just targeting depression ads. Maybe they’re targeting people like me, in which case, they did an awesome job. If I was sitting on the T reading this and the other ads, I’d crack up and then immediately go buy a hamburger. Those stock photo “depressed? you’re not alone” ads are so corny anyway. I’ve experienced depression and those ads were not helpful.

    I understand that mostly everyone who is concerned is trying to protect depressed people [I’m sure there is a small percentage that just wants to skewer McDonalds for anything]. It makes me sad, though, that I probably won’t be seeing funny ads like this for much longer in today’s hyper sensitive society.

    • The differing responses to this ad have made me think more about why people find certain attempts at humor funny or not. I can howl over things that others find in poor taste or even offensive — Mel Brooks and John Waters movies, for example, though the latter only when I’m in a certain mood!

      But upon seeing that ad, I quickly thought that it missed the mark. And I’m not even sure it was in the ad concept; rather, it was more in the execution. It lacked that over the top, wink of an eye quality that makes for much of the best satire.

      • I feel the opposite – I think it works because it’s so similar, and then has that little twist. If it was super obvious it was an ad (say, she’s holding her head and has a Big Mac in the other hand) it wouldn’t be funny at all, just dumb. In order to appreciate the humor, you have to be tricked for at least a second.

    • Perhaps, it is an occupational hazard on my part. I work in human services and, because there is a value in supporting those who cannot speak for themselves, I tend to have an automatic response to viewing an ad of this nature.

      However, having given it further thought, it continues to disturb me that someone being displayed as being in anguish – a truly heart wrenching and potentially life threatening state to be in – is used as a eye catcher for advertising the Big Mac.

      For me it is, at best, done in very bad taste and is insensitive to the realities of those who suffer from mental health afflictions.

      Having said that, I can appreciate that there may be differing views on the topic. My concern remains for those who do not share their thoughts and, yet, may be affected by the association that this ad promotes.

  11. Perspectives and or Personal experience dictates responses,if you have never been Treated Different, made to feel like an outsider, denied an oportunity because of a disability,the Color of your Skin,the Religion you practice,the one you Love or simply because you have chosen not to conform.
    Then you would not understand some of responses of those who have.
    Quite frankly,i am very happy for those of you who cain’t,becasue it is one of the most vunerable feelings you could ever imagine,knowing that for a fualt,not of your own doing….you do not qualify.
    we live in a broken world where sin is the oppressor,there will always be Cruel people and i know everybody knows one,even if you fail to admit it,you can at least identify.
    I worked for a Company that used Intimidation and retalitory Actions to keep Minorities and out spoken employees in less desirable postions.
    Again,if you can not identify with one of the “imperfections” mentioned above,I do not expect you to understand the reason behind this post.

  12. If you claim to appreciate humor (although from your comments, it sounds as if you prefer broad Adam Sandler-type humor over more subtle, thought-provoking stuff that makes you think), David, then you must understand that two of the major sources of humor are pain/tragedy and parody.

    This ad doesn’t target or victimize any individual or group with malice.

    It mocks a type of ad that seeks to sell the disadvantaged a solution to a problem that is potentially far more complex than those that advertise in a subway can resolve.

    Hopefully we can homogenize the world to a degree that no one is ever again offended by anything. It sure would be great if we were all walking around in a blissful, non-thinking state of Soma-induced blandness!

    • Gregg, thanks for adding another perspective to the discussion, though equating my devotion to Mel Brooks with the humor of Adam Sandler is quite the stretch, and an untrue one in my case!

    • Personally, I am not privy to the ads that the Boston area has posted on its public transportation systems. However, I do think that an appropriate subtitle for the type of poster that we are discussing would include a phone number and/or a help line for those who can relate to feeling alone in one’s troubled state of mind.

      Utilizing this type of poster for purposes other than providing direction and support for those who identify with the image on the poster, in my opinion, is inappropriate.

      Humor in a context that provides laugher and uplifts people has its merits and is most needed, to say the least, and I think it is safe to say that most of us on this site would appreciate a hearty laugh now and then.

      Having said that, I am confident that advertising agencies are quite capable of employing brilliant people who are highly qualified and artistically gifted in creating some rather catchy and original images and phrasing without having to borrow from the themes that are designed to, hopefully, attract the attention of our less fortunate citizenry who may be struggling from one hour to another simply to stay alive.

      As this advertising pertains to workplace aggression, I am certain that some of us has read or heard about at least one case in which a suspected suicide may have, at least in part, been contributed to an oppressive workplace setting.

      Certainly a percentage of our youth have committed suicide due to prolonged and ignored bullying at school. I truly think we need to honor the suffering of those afflicted with seemingly unbearable pain, whether it be ours or someone else’s, by being gatekeepers of what the appropriate use of such images need to be used for.

      In the final analysis, the Big Mac can and will prosper without such ads as the one we are discussing. That is one statement and premise I can be confident of.

      • Why do you think this ad pertains to workplace aggression and bullying? It is simply a spoof of an ubiquitous and corny ad for any sort of depression, and the category spans far and wide. There is zero context anywhere showing that anything more specific is involved. [Depression is a mental illness. Bullying can lead to depression but is certainly not a precursor by any means.]

        The next time you lay eyes on a depressed person, I can pretty much assure you it won’t be a young white woman wearily hanging her head in her hands. Therefore, in actuality, it’s the actual depression ads themselves that belittle those who are suffering.

      • Grace, what may appear as an odd juxtaposition of the Big Mac ad and comments about workplace bullying is that many people follow this blog because a lot of its content is about bullying and psychological abuse at work.

        Many targets of workplace bullying suffer from depression and various stress-related conditions, and so they’re looking at this ad from that perspective.

      • The mention of workplace and school aggression is an example of how people can be struggling with depression that can lead, in some cases, to suicide.

        The reason for that example was simply to highlight how images of this nature can, also, pertain to those of us who experience oppression from aggressors in our lives. Since this is a site that focuses on workplace aggression, it is a relevant example. That is the expanse and intention of the statement, nothing more, nothing less.

        For those who struggle with depression, the phenomena does not confine itself to specific socioeconomic groups, it spans the spectrum. So, I do think that the ad appropriately provides an example of someone suffering from a mental/emotional affliction.

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  15. As an individual dealing with such issues as PTSD(due to combat), Depression, Anxiety. ADHD and Addiction, I find nothing wrong with this ad. In fact, it gave me a good laugh. I feel, for me at least, that a good laugh is good medicine.

  16. I don’t see that the McDonalds ad targets anyone. This is a funny ad. Why are we assuming the individual is in anguish rather then embarrassed, hence the hand over the face. Has our society become so “dummed down” that we can no longer use our imagination and appreciate creative advertising. Also, when someone says “I don’t think I am being too PC” that generally means they have walked over the PC curb and fallen on their face. Do we have to examine everything to the absurd level. Can’t we just look, laugh and go forth. According to this blog, we should just apologize for everything right at the beginning of each and every sentence because we surely will be insulting someone. Let’s get real folks and broaden up our shoulders.

  17. I appreciate the thoughtful comments — pro, con, in between — offering differing perspectives on the ad.

    I updated the post to indicate that the mental health community has been weighing in, including the following from the Boston Herald:

    Mental health advocates yesterday blasted a McDonald’s ad on the MBTA that appears at first to be a public service announcement targeting people suffering from depression.

    “It’s really too bad because it trivializes the whole issue of depression,” said Julie Totten, executive director of Waltham-based Families for Depression Awareness, which has been running an ad of its own on the T for its Strides Against Stigma Walk on April 27 at Boston University. “We’re trying to say when you need help, it’s not a laughing matter. We don’t want people to feel stigmatized or made fun of.”

  18. I’ve struggled with severe depression for a few years, and I am honestly puzzled by a lot of the comments in this thread. I think the ad is funny precisely because it looks like a genuine ad about depression. It’s not “making fun of depression” or making light of it in anyway. It’s merely exaggerating the effect that a big mac can have on a person. I think it’s a piece of advertising genius, to be honest, and while I don’t usually care much for ads (certainly don’t think they are as important as mental health issues), I think it’s a bit of a shame that on the rare occasion that a clever piece of advertising comes around, it has to be taken down needlessly.

    PS: When I have manic episodes and am in the depths of depression, I could care less what McDonald’s has to say about anything. I’m tormented by my own demons. Not by some absent third party who has no relation to my anguish. Being mentally ill doesn’t always have to make you so irrational.

  19. The ultimate concern as I see it, succinctly stated, is that for someone who is in an acute state of distress-contemplating taking one’s life-does this image invoke a humorous reaction, an apathetic reaction, and/or an increased distressful reaction?

    Because the answer is, “I just don’t know”, since in that moment someone may be teetering on the brink of eternity, that is enough for me to support being more cautious with how we are promoting these types of images.

    Having said that, for those among us who struggle with longer-term chronic (not acute) issues, there tends to be some space for humor in our lives, and that is deeply needed.

    However, that simply may not be the case for others. And it is that population of our citizenry that I am most concerned about when images of that nature appear.

  20. I’ve worked on McDonald’s advertising for 15+ years at two different agencies and believe me, every piece of creative, from a national tv or radio spot, down to the simplest local coupon, must go through McDonald’s corporate legal department before it airs or goes to print. Don’t blame McDonald’s for this creative, blame the agency responsible for creating it. Agencies are paid to represent their clients in the best light possible. If they choose to bypass the legal review process they should be held accountable. Unfortunately, the client gets the bad rap because everyone wants to point an accusing finger before taking the time to find the truth of the matter.

    • Kevin, people did make prompt efforts to verify the ad and get to the truth of the matter. Before I had any idea this would spark a viral story, I called the number on the ad and Googled “Big Mac ad hoax” to see if this was part of an orchestrated spoof. Boston Magazine quickly picked up the story and immediately put in a call to McD’s corporate headquarters. From what I can tell, it took McDonald’s a day or so to explain what happened. The Arnold ad agency apologized soon afterward. While I haven’t scoured all of the coverage about this story, it appears that print media and blogs (including this one) were quick to add McD’s explanation that the ad was released without going through final approval processes.

      It’s interesting that you emphasized the clearance from legal department. As a lawyer and law professor immersed in liability issues, this struck me as a creative & PR issue, not a legal one. In fact, I could see a lot of in-house counsel looking at this and not thinking twice about OKing it, unless they’ve been instructed to serve as a second set of eyes & ears on potential PR problems. Legal aside, it’s also clear from quotes in the business/advertising media that folks in the ad biz fully understand what got McD’s and the Arnold agency the bad press.

      I’m guessing that this caught McDonald’s completely by surprise, which may explain the longer lead time in issuing an explanation but also had the effect of expanding the news cycle on the story. That was in no way intentional on my part. I thought I was running a quick little blog post about an ad that I believed was in questionable taste. I’m still a little stunned by the interest it stirred.

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  22. David, let me clarify the legal review process includes review from creative leadership (and other departments) at the client level as well. I’ve seen many seemingly innocuous headlines and layouts kicked backed over the years via this process. Believe me, had this ad been submitted properly for review, it would have been rejected for the very reasons you pointed out in your original blog. It could be construed by some to be insensitive to those in a crisis.

    • Kevin, thank you for that insider’s clarification — much appreciated and, as you’ve suggested, further explaining the degree to which standard protocols were overlooked.

      I don’t know if this snafu reaches the level of being a case study in b-school, but I wonder if this will cause both clients and ad firms to ensure that all screening & review processes are followed. If it can happen to a corporation like McDonald’s, then I’m presuming it can happen to anyone.

    • Perhaps this is a situation that highlights an important point. Context matters. Communicating responsibly involves knowing who you are communicating with and framing the messages you send with the receiver(s) in mind.

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