“When does that Szechuan sauce come out? We gotta get some.”
My two oldest cousins, Brian and Thor, are the closest things I have to brothers. All three of us are in our late thirties and, while we share all the strained relations and awkward rivalries family life affords most siblings, at our individual cores we have far more similarities than we do differences.
One of the brightest features in our key congruencies is a deep appreciation of fringe humor. We all work in media. We’re all total wise-asses.
I have fond memories of the three of us sneaking away from Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners to watch a Thrasher skate tape, Howard the Duck, or, later in life, Ali G.
Even though the three of us haven’t hung out together for a couple years, I knew Adult Swim’s hit show, Rick and Morty would be the topic du jour when we were all set to attend the celebration of our aunt and uncle Tom & Hari’s 25th wedding anniversary last weekend.
Without fail, Brian, Thor and I found ourselves giddily reciting scenes, having never discussed the show prior, within an hour of reuniting.
We talked about the McDonald’s Szechuan stunt and agreed we should seek it out and try to get some of the coveted sauce mentioned in the show. What we didn’t realize was that we were less than 24 hours away from the big day when the sauce was due to be released.
If you’re not hip to the Rick and Morty/McDonald’s Szechuan situation, enlightenment resides herein.
Also, worth noting is the packaging and key art McDonald’s used for the campaign. While it’s clearly a half-nod to the show, it still looks super cool.
Then it happened.
When I woke up in my hotel room a short drive from my grandparents’ house the following morning, I saw a post at the top of the front page of Reddit.
While a sociologist will perhaps offer better insight as to the how or why of fans’ reactions to McDonald’s misestimation of the sauce’s demand, upon watching the most-viewed YouTube video from the day’s events, that of a male Rick and Morty fan jumping up on a McDonald’s counter, yelling, falling to the floor, rolling around, and pulling his shirt over his head (look it up), I felt I was watching something as singular and strange as one of the aliens Rick Sanchez encounters with his teleportation gun.
I sent the post to my cousins via text. None of us spoke about it or Rick and Morty for the rest of the weekend.
Following the incident, Dan Harmon, one of the show’s two co-creators, tweeted the following:
Yes can I get a McBlatantly Unlicensed Integration Meal done not well, hold the permission, extra awkward
— Dan Harmon (@danharmon) October 10, 2017
While I love the Rick and Morty show and Harmon’s podcast HarmonTown, from a brand perspective, it’s hard to defend his assertion that the “integration” stunt was unlicensed. As far as I can tell, the only licensed products involved, the Szechuan sauce, belonged to McDonald’s. Furthermore, had McDonald’s sought an integration deal with the show, it would be extra extra awkward for Harmon’s team when the fans showed up in droves, only to be turned away sauce-less. In my opinion, Rick and Morty dodged an inter-dimensional bullet by not partnering with the Golden Arches.
On the other hand.
Brands have a responsibility to know their demos. Most of the time, McDonald’s seems to get it right. But we live in a brave new world now where the old rules don’t apply.
Don’t believe me? Just ask Pepsi.
I feel like Rick and Morty symbolically represents the kind of IP millennials can deeply appreciate—the way my cousins and I appreciated Thrasher tapes. Somehow, the focus-group-tested shows on TV in the 80’s weren’t as appealing to us as watching hours of low-fi video of Tony Hawk busting his ass trying to grind on a rail. Rick and Morty fans love the show, because it accurately and blissfully triangulates the current moment more than any other.
Case in point: we haven’t lived in a sitcom world for decades and yet, Big Bang Theory was, until very recently, the top show on network television.
Rick and Morty fans are hungry for “blissful triangulation of the moment.” And Adult Swim’s hit series spoon feeds it to them, fantastically, with glee.
My sense is that McDonald’s failed to anticipate the complexity and voraciousness of Rick and Morty fandom, and instead, attempted to capitalize on the show’s mention of the sauce the same way it would as if Rick and Morty were any, random, Pixar movie.
And this ain’t Toy Story.
McDonald’s should have seen it coming.
Even a top-level pass at the Adult Swim IP reveals F-bombs galore, profoundly NSFW themes, and violence that even makes me cover my eyes sometimes. This is not the place for the McDonald’s demo, not the home of the Happy Meal and PlayPlace.
Like Pepsi’s infamous, “Live for Now Moments Anthem” (Ugh. That name…), the McDonald’s Szechuan stunt attempts, and fails, to harness organic, Millennial energy.
Like Rick and Morty, Millennials live in multiple dimensions. It’s not like the old days when a brand could just piggy-back on cultural iconography like Michael Jackson sharing a Coke with E.T.. Kids care now. Deeply. (See, every YouTuber.) And while it’s not impossible to integrate passion and product, based on some notable examples, it’s clear that brands do so at their peril, if they do not take the time to truly understand who they’re dealing with.
One of my favorite lines from the show comes from Morty’s sister, Summer, when their mom complains she was traumatized as a child.
“Bitch,” Summer replies to her mother. “My generation gets traumatized for breakfast.”
If McDonald’s were my client (and, god willing, they will be someday), I would advise them to engage with any fan community with caution. I would invite them to take a deep dive into the content and really attempt to understand the energy powering the phenomenon they seek to harness. It may not be pretty.
So, what now?
There’s a lot of cringing happening on the internet in response to the Rick and Morty/McDonald’s debacle. Some Rick and Morty fans definitely took things too far and, as a fellow fan, I feel ashamed of that. However, it’s McDonald’s that made the decision to walk into the portal and plant their flag in alien territory, so… It’s kind of a situation where everybody messed up.
I think there’s a lot to be said about fandom these days, too. I don’t think it’s an overreach of the argument to include the current political situation in this discussion. We live in strange times.
In the end, it felt really great to trade Rick and Morty quotes with my cousins after all these years. It reminded us why we’re family. We love things that are new, smart-ass, and good. We always have.
It’s weird when a brand steps in and tries to grab a piece of that action. It’s even weirder when the fans of a thing you love freak out and misbehave.
But, I guess as Rick says, “That’s the way the news goes.”