Mythology of the Szechuan Sauce: Or How (Not) to Take Advantage of a PR Opportunity

This year, April Fool’s Day brought an unexpected new episode of the hit cartoon “Rick and Morty” that, even more unexpectedly, brought a massive PR opportunity for fast-food chain McDonald’s. The show highlighted a promotional dipping sauce from 19 years ago, giving McDonald’s a chance to take advantage of a huge surge in publicity. Their response was a mixed success – and is well worth learning from.

Being Ready For Anything

Few people could’ve predicted the sudden release of a new episode of the hit cartoon series “Rick and Morty” – but even fewer could’ve predicted that the closing moments of the episode would segue into a mad rant about the 1998 McDonald’s “Szechuan Sauce”. The sauce, released in limited quantities to promote the movie “Mullan”, found legions of new fans from Rick and Morty, demanding more. Only 10 days later, a packet of the sauce sold on eBay for the staggering sum of $14,700.

McDonald’s seemingly bowed to popular demand (following a petition of over 35,000 signatures) –issuing a press release for the return of the sauce accompanied by a whole website and range of sauces and posters in a curiously “Rick and Morty” style. It’s a great example of a company using a situation it couldn’t have seen coming – and doing so in a way that respects its audience – the graphics and language surrounding the website and press release play on the style of the show and include many phrases associated with it, without directly referencing it. (Which is worth noting on its own — directly referencing the distinctly adult show, or attempting a collaboration, could have been a potential PR nightmare for family-friendly McDonald’s – so it was gutsy to go as far as McDonald’s did.)

The result: a company quickly and cleverly taking advantage of a great PR opportunity, setting a date for the new sauce to hit stores. What went wrong?

Underestimating the situation

Given the effort they put into this campaign, McDonald’s oddly ultimately misjudged the subsequent demand for the re-issued sauce. On its release day, many stores across the US had huge queues, with demand that could not be filled – some stores weren’t even aware of the promotion. The result was a media backlash – including a lot of unhappy fans on Twitter. McDonald’s issued an apology for the fiasco – still visible on the sauce’s main webpage. The apology still played on the theme, using Morty’s words, “Not cool.”, and promising to make it right with “a portal gun” if necessary – but whatever follows will be a minor success compared to getting it right first time round. The day that McDonald’s had built up to so cleverly proved a disappointment, and generated negative PR.

There’s an important warning here. When faced with random PR opportunities – even from the lunatic inter-dimensional ambitions of a cartoon character – it’s not enough to tap into the zeitgeist. Taking advantage of a PR opportunity also means trying to predict how far you can take it, for maximum effect – and while McDonald’s showed an excellent understanding of the customer and the show, they executed the final promotion poorly. There wasn’t enough sauce, and it wasn’t well co-ordinated. Whether this could have been avoided with more communication between departments, or a more committed PR push, the source of this unfortunate sauce situation has to be that McDonald’s did not, in the end, recognise the full potential of the opportunity.

It’s arguable that with any unplanned PR opportunity it’s difficult to gauge how far to take it. No one wants to waste money with poorly conceived ad hoc PR campaigns. But in this case, all the indicators were there. The petition had been signed, and vintage tubs of sauce were being sold for staggering sums of money. McDonald’s realised the opportunity was big enough to embrace, but somehow missed quite how big it was.

The show isn’t over yet, though –the latest press release suggests McDonald’s aren’t ready to let this one go, and the new edition sauces are now selling on eBay for alarming amounts. The full measure of McDonald’s success here is yet to be seen – but hopefully they’re working on it with a fervour that would make Rick Sanchez proud.