In the Season 3 premiere of Rick and Morty, Rick declares it his life mission (or “series arc”) to get the McDonald’s Szechuan Sauce, originally sold as a promotion for Mulan in 1998.
Memes spread and spiraled out of control until McDonald’s finally announced a “super-limited” return of Szechuan Sauce for October 7, 2017.
— McDonald’s (@McDonalds) October 7, 2017
I grabbed my Morty cosplay (a yellow shirt) and headed out to an Atlanta McDonald’s at noon, two hours before the promotion was scheduled to begin. Two customers drove all night from Alabama and arrived at 6 AM. As the group of Rick and Morty fans grew closer to 100 people, the restaurant announced they only had 17 packets of Szechuan Sauce. According to twitter, every other McDonald’s either had around twenty or zero packets, again with lines of over 100 people.
The manager said there were stickers and posters available too. I figured I could settle for a Szechuan Sauce poster if I couldn’t get the Szechuan Sauce itself. Unfortunately, most of the posters and stickers were for other condiments. If you wanted a Ranch or maybe a Ketchup poster, today was your lucky day.
In an attempt to distance themselves from a show with dark, twisted adult humor while still capitalizing on its fan base, McDonald’s made the posters a similar art style without making a direct reference. The end result feels like they’re promoting an imitation show designed to fool grandmas into buying the wrong gifts. Personally, I find this more amusing than insulting.
There was a raffle. I drew number 86. By the time my number was called, everything was gone. As a consolation prize, I received a postcard advertising McDonald’s new chicken nuggets. Alright.
Fortunately, a friend drew number 10, received the sauce, and shared it with me. The two customers from Alabama were able to try it as well.
Though my friends and I were able to have fun and enjoy ridiculously over-hyped sauce, others were not so lucky. In Los Angeles, over 2,000 people gathered at a single McDonald’s. A raffle started and people who camped out overnight received nothing. A riot broke out and police arrived to shut down the restaurant. Here’s a clip uploaded by YouTube user Not Dan Harmon:
To make matters worse, it seems shortages of sauce were in part due to employee theft. They listed the stolen sauce on eBay at an infinitely higher price. Listings selling multiple packs are almost guaranteed to be selling stolen sauce.
Of course, the blame is not only on thieving employees. Each McDonald’s should have received far more packets of Szechuan Sauce. If they looked at the level of engagement on social media, they could have foreseen the demand and prepared appropriately. It seems the McDonald’s Marketing Director is basically Jerry and should be fired.
But that would be a quick judgment. The truth may be far more complicated. In Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions Of A Media Manipulator, a book I highly recommend, Ryan Holiday repeatedly gives examples of how a manufactured outrage is a far more efficient marketing technique than actual paid advertisement.
Look at how news of McDonald’s is blowing up all over the Internet. People are hearing about poor planning, yes, but they’re also hearing about how everyone wants to try this Szechuan (teriyaki) Sauce. This sauce must be legendary if so many people want it!
Then, when the time is right, McDonald’s brings the sauce back again for a much longer time frame, if not indefinitely. Everyone who heard the outlandish stories will be tempted to come try it.
In addition to that, people drawn to McDonald’s on October 7th made purchases they would not have otherwise made, just because of the advertisement for Szechuan Sauce. What did they buy? Take another look at the McDonald’s tweet. They bought the new #buttermilkcrispytenders.
The McDonald’s Marketing Director is obviously highly intelligent, (perhaps he watches Rick and Morty) because to be fair you need to have a very high IQ to hatch a scheme like this. He shouldn’t be fired, he should be promoted.
There is still one small problem. McDonald’s may have broken the law by not clearly advertising only 20 packets per restaurant. They may be guilty of false advertisement. It seems their defense is using the word “super-limited” in their tweet, but obviously many interpreted this to mean the sauce would last a day, not a few minutes. Apparently, this is similar to how stores like Walmart are legally obligated to list an exact quantity of an advertised item on sale for Black Friday.
Based on what I read on Wikipedia, the punishment for false advertising is extremely lenient, especially for a first offense. McDonald’s has apparently never been convicted of false advertising before. In 2010, a mother sued McDonald’s for falsely advertising Happy Meals that do not truly make children happy, but the case was dismissed. They haven’t been convicted for misleadingly propping up their burgers in promotional photos either.
A class action lawsuit may still result in a large penalty and cash settlement, especially if all states affected are represented. Perhaps inciting a riot could be added to the list of charges. I definitely encourage everyone to try, if at least for the memes. However, it’s likely the lawsuit will be worth it for McDonald’s as long as their lawyer isn’t a Morty.
UPDATE: I was right! Within a few hours of posting this article, McDonald’s announced they’re bringing the sauce back indefinitely in the winter.
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