Celebrities, FOMO, and the making of a troubling McDonald's ad campaign
Pear in mind: A blog in the public interest
Food and beverage companies, including fast food companies, rely on celebrity spokespeople to attract customers – if superstar athletes Steph Curry and Serena Williams like Subway, maybe one of their fans will want to try out Subway’s new offerings. However, over the past year, McDonald's has turned this model upside down. Instead of just featuring celebrities in their commercials, the restaurant chain has partnered with big names to bring each celebrity's signature order to its menus. These campaigns have gone viral and made the chain millions; however, this is all at the expense of teenagers' health and well-being.
McDonald’s launched its first celebrity meal with musician Travis Scott last fall. Fans could get Scott’s go-to order, a Quarter Pounder with cheese, bacon, and lettuce, medium fries with barbeque sauce, and medium Sprite, for only $6. The limited time offer coincided with an exclusive merch drop featuring Travis Scott and McDonald’s cobranded t-shirts, tote bags, and more.
The campaign was a massive success. The meal was so popular, some McDonald’s locations ran out of ingredients for the meal. Videos of people ordering the meal popped up all over social media. Since the Travis Scott meal, McDonald’s has repeated the formula with musicians J. Balvin, BTS, and Saweetie.
While these meals have been great for the company – the BTS meal helped boost sales by a whopping 25.9 percent earlier this year – they’re not so great for consumers, especially teens. These meals are far from the typical celebrity endorsement we are used to seeing; they have become a social event. People are encouraged to post pictures of their celebrity orders using hashtags like #BTSMeal or #TheSaweetieMeal. Some videos of people ordering one of these meals rack up over one million likes on TikTok, and the restaurant even made special video effects to promote the BTS meal on the app. Special edition merchandise for the meals is available for a short time only – sometimes only 48 hours.
The exclusive nature of these meals and the hype surrounding them can lead to FOMO (fear of missing out). In other words: You need to buy this meal right now because everyone is buying it, and this might be your only chance. Look how much fun people are having when they post about it on social media and look at how many views/likes/comments/shares/etc. they are getting. You need to do that too. How else will people know you’re participating?
We all experience FOMO sometimes, and McDonald’s is capitalizing on it. It works on adults from time to time and gets us to engage, but imagine how effective it is on teenagers, when it feels like your entire life is predicated on how you compare to your peers and what they think of you. Social media creates an environment where this feeling snowballs. McDonald’s has even admitted that the whole point of these campaigns is to engage with Gen Z (people born between 1997 and 2012).
McDonald’s is taking advantage of young people’s emotions; that’s why these meals have been so successful for the company. If it were just the celebrity endorsement that drew people in, then they’d be flocking to Subway too. McDonald’s is exploiting teenagers’ inherent vulnerability and lived experiences to sell them unhealthy food – for example, the Saweetie meal, a Big Mac, 4-piece Chicken McNuggets, medium french fries, and medium Sprite, contains a whole day’s worth of added sugar and nearly three-quarters of a day’s worth of sodium and saturated fat, and that’s not including the Tangy BBQ and Saweetie n’ Sour sauces that come with the meal.
Considering the chain has put in a lot of work over the past decade to improve the nutritional quality of its kids’ meals and ensure it is marketing to children responsibly, it is disappointing to see them take advantage of older youth in this way. This is not what positive engagement looks like, and McDonald’s needs to do better for the sake of teenagers’ well-being.
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Katie Marx (she/her/hers) provides support for numerous CSPI initiatives. She works closely on projects related to food marketing to kids and restaurant children's meals.