McDonald’s Versus Pit Bulls: A PR Debacle

Last week, McDonald’s came under a great deal of fire for airing a radio ad which claimed that trying one of their new menu items was less risky than, among other things, petting a stray Pit Bull:

Knowing that Kolbeco is an office full of dog lovers (and as a disclaimer, yes, we do have Pit Bulls who are a bunch of the most friendly, loving dogs I know), some of our staff immediately began receiving calls and emails from friends outraged by the ad. Although most hadn’t heard it firsthand, rumors of it were all over the internet and social media. Kolbeco Art Director and Stray Rescue of St. Louis Foster Parent Erin Celuch was on the case, working to find out if the rumored ad was truly out there, and to find a copy of it. In the meantime, outrage was building among rescue groups, Pit Bull owners, and dog advocacy groups.

While we certainly have our opinions about the ad itself, I’d like to focus on why this created such a PR firestorm for McDonald’s:

  1. Research (and not a lot of it) would have uncovered that there are legions of people out there who are passionate about Pit Bulls and rescue dogs in general. The attempt at humor alienated a sizable audience.
  2. These groups tend to be connected on social media – and are very active. Once the nerve was touched, anti-McDonald’s campaigns quickly mobilized.
  3. The claim of menu items not being “risky” gave folks even more fodder.  Hello, McDonald’s, you’re not exactly known for your healthy food. Not only were the dog advocacy folks decrying the portrayal of Pit Bulls, they began digging up and sharing articles about people dying and suffering health problems due to eating their food.
In the end, it all goes back to the basics – do your research, know your audience, and let strategy lead all of your messaging. And yes, when push comes to shove, sometimes you really do have to say you’re sorry, even if it’s too little too late. What kind of impact this really will have to McDonald’s business remains to be seen (although I suspect it won’t amount to much in the long run).

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