How Not to Advertise Burgers: McD's CEO Turns a Gay Molehill Into a Culture War Mountain

Last Updated Jun 14, 2010 3:16 PM EDT

McDonald's (MCD) COO Don Thompson just said the worst thing he possibly could regarding his company's French ad featuring a gay teenager: He told the Chicago Tribune that it would not be airing in America because "I'm a Christian" (although, he added, he doesn't "impose" his beliefs on others) and it only aired in France because that's "the cultural norm in another part of the world."

Thompson's veiled implication is that being gay -- or, in the case of the French ad, a closeted gay teenager -- isn't the "norm" in the U.S., and that's part of McDonald's "core values."

This is a business blog, so let's put aside the whole debate about whether being gay is a non-issue or a heinous threat to civilization, and instead focus on whether Thompson's flub is good for selling burgers. Quick answer: It isn't. It makes McD's look stupid and inconsistent, and creates a political debate that will do nothing to help McD's brand.

Thompson had ample warning that the gay ad was going to be a hot-button issue here in the U.S. -- where, in case you've been living under a rock, gay rights are controversial. So he should have been prepared to answer whether McD's will run the ad in the U.S. Instead, he dragged religion into it and made a lazy argument about what's normal, while simultaneously insisting that he was making no judgments. Most bizarrely, his argument rests on the premise that being gay is OK in France but not in the U.S.

Here's what he said:
Tribune: A French TV ad featuring a gay teen and his father has stirred some controversy -- not there, but here. Can you talk about that?
Thompson: It is an example that markets, cultures are very different around the world. (For instance), I've never shied away from the fact that I'm a Christian. I have my own personal beliefs and I don't impose those on anybody else. I've been in countries where the majority of the people in the country don't believe in a deity or they may be atheist. Or the majority of the country is Muslim. Or it may be the majority is much younger skewed. So when you look at all these differences, it's not that I'm to be the judge or the jury relative to right or wrong. Having said that, at McDonald's, there are core values we stand for and the world is getting much closer. So we have a lot of conversations. We're going to make some mistakes at times. (We talk) about things that may have an implication in one part of the world and may be the cultural norm in another part of the world. And those are things that, yes, we're going to learn from. But, you're right, that commercial won't show in the United States.
Thompson had no reason -- religious, ethical or business -- to drag religion into this debate. Being a Christian has absolutely nothing to do with whether you're for or against gay rights. Liberal Christians (who also eat cheeseburgers) will be groaning in dismay at yet another civic leader who has managed to link their religion to the anti-gay cause.

Conservative Christians will seize on this and make an unnecessary and damaging link between McD's and the anti-gay agenda, in much the same way that eating at Dominos Pizza (DPZ) became synonymous with supporting the pro-life movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This is not what McD's needs right now, as a business.

That's just the beginning. Thompson will probably end up being pilloried on The Daily Show, The Colbert Report or other late-night shows, and may have to issue a politically correct supplementary statement reaffirming that McDonald's doesn't discriminate against gays and non-Christians in the U.S. It will be embarrassing.

So, what should Thompson have done? It's a tough one because airing the ad in the U.S. would be consistent -- and ethical -- but would have generated a similar amount of publicity. The key is in the argument Thompson clumsily failed to make in the Trib interview: Different ads are relevant to different audiences. The commercial could have been aired on MTV or Comedy Central in the evenings, or in liberal markets such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami and New Orleans. Thompson could have simply said his company was addressing its own market research in a neutral manner and then moved on. Whether you're for or against gay rights, being gay-friendly has no business downside, as Campbell Soup and General Electric both demonstrate.

Opportunity lost.

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