McDonald's Gets Flamed for Paid-Tweet McRib Ads

Last Updated Nov 11, 2010 9:05 AM EST

McDonald's (MCD) took a stab at hipness recently by plunging into a new advertising medium -- paid trending topics on Twitter. Unfortunately, their choice of campaign was promoting the return of the mystery-meat McRib sandwich. This turned what could have been a new-media master move into a recipe for embarrassment.

Among the uncensored Twitterati responses McDonald's received for the $80,000 it reportedly spent for its #McRibIsBack full-day sponsored trending topic (leaving out the ones that used language not reprintable here):

To sum up, McDonald's lost complete control of the campaign, which spiraled off into endless chains of frequently retweeted remarks about the disgusting, fattening, and non-foodlike qualities of the McRib. Not a good outcome, and a cautionary tale for any brand that fantasizes about "going viral" on the Internet. It's not always a good thing.

It's easy to see how McDonald's was drawn into this. The McRib has a small but loyal cult following that has avidly pursued McRib-eating opportunities through a locator Web site during recent years, when the McRib has been available only sporadically and only in a few markets at a time. McDonald's no doubt hoped to harness the fan base to pump up interest in the McRib.

But here's the thing about Twitter: It's the Wild West in there. There's no way to shape or control the dialogue. The comments were so rude that responding to them would have likely only made things worse. So McDonald's could only sit there and take it. Couldn't have been fun in the C-suite.

Even if McDonald's had gotten McRib fans to post positive comments, the trending topic was visible to all. Snarkers quickly jumped on the opportunity to increase their Twitter followers by thinking up something rude to say about the pressed-pork sandwich that would get frequently retweeted. The ruder, the better.

The McRib debacle calls two things into question: Whether Twitter will be able to make money from sponsored trending topics (as it hopes), and whether brands should pay good money to use this advertising approach. For now, smart brands will probably watch and learn rather than jumping in to the Twitter paid-topic pool. The water can turn out to be ice cold.

Photo via Flickr user DrPizza
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  • Carol Tice

    Carol Tice is a longtime business reporter whose work has appeared in Entrepreneur, The Seattle Times, and Nation's Restaurant News, among others. Online sites she's written for include Allbusiness.com and Yahoo!Hotjobs. She blogs about the business of writing at Make a Living Writing.