Why That Controversial McDonald's Ad Might Actually Work

McDonald’s latest strategy to get more people in the door: Pull at your heart strings.

The chain, plagued by a rut of sluggish sales, unveiled a new ad Sunday evening during the NFL playoffs and the Golden Globes featuring McDonald’s signs from across the country with feel-good messages like “thank you veterans” and “keep jobs in Toledo.” Critics were swift to deride the spot, creating a parody, calling it “tone deaf” and using Twitter to note the irony of a chain highlighting its role in helping the community when it's constantly embroiled in labor protests and criticism for marketing unhealthy food to kids.

Despite the skeptics, the emotional advertising may actually be the Golden Arches' best hope to draw people in. With chains like Five Guys, Shake Shack and even Chipotle offering quick, fresh and relatively cheap alternatives to McDonald’s, the most salient reasons for many to order a Big Mac are nostalgia and familiarity. And the spot, called "Signs," reminds people of those things, said Barry Klein, a former director of advertising at McDonald’s.

“It’s about time,” said Klein, who helped craft the McDonald’s “You Deserve A Break Today” campaign in the 1970s. “That’s a big step forward in getting back to one of the important reasons for going to McDonald’s -- it’s a nice, pleasant experience, it’s family time and it’s warm and fuzzy.”

From the “You Deserve A Break” campaign to the “Little Sister” ad to McDonald’s “I’m Lovin’ It” slogan, the fast food giant has a history of trying to create an emotional connection with people to bring them in the door. When McDonald’s first rolled out nationally, it wasn’t necessarily any better than any of the other burger joints already out there, said Jason Chambers, a University of Illinois professor who focuses on the history of advertising.

“That notion of experience was an important one,” he said. “It was one of the things that they were using to try to make themselves unique in that category of equals.”

Indeed, the idea that McDonald’s is a family restaurant engaged in the community has “always been a key differentiator for us,” said Deborah Wahl, the company’s chief marketing officer in the U.S. The creative team at Leo Burnett, the agency behind the ad, wanted to emphasize "an asset that McDonald's has that's unique to them," said Susan Credle, the agency's chief creative officer.

"These reader boards from time to time stop being about running the business and start being about supporting the community," she said. "When we found these, we were like, 'This is real, this is not us being creative.'"

McDonald's is also taking a similar approach to its food, emphasizing features of its classic sandwiches that appear authentic, instead of dressing them up to be something they're not, Credle said. The controversial Sunday spot is part of a broader push to revamp McDonald’s “I’m Lovin’ It” campaign, and includes other ads that unapologetically tout the Big Mac as superior to kale and highlight the Quarter Pounder’s unpretentious perfection.

McDonald's new Big Mac ad.

Whal said she's hoping the spots will start a conversation with diners about the chain, which is exactly what the “Signs” ad did, even if much of that conversation was negative.

“It has created a lot of good dialogue and that’s what we’re interested in,” she said. Credle, who said her phone has been buzzing constantly since Sunday, expressed a similar sentiment.

"I'm just glad that people are talking," she said.

Still, buzz and emotion may not be enough to sell burgers. Klein, who now works as a marketing consultant, noted that Budweiser’s iconic clydesdales made viewers feel warm and fuzzy, but they didn’t convince people to switch from craft beers to Bud.

“The big issue to me is, is it too late?” Klein said. “Do the consumers still relate to what’s at the core of the McDonald’s menu? I don’t know the answer to that.”

And as the controversy over the “Signs” spot indicates, the emotional message the chain is trying to send with the ads doesn't match many Americans’ experience with McDonald’s. Part of the success of the “Take A Break” campaign was that at the time, McDonald’s really was a place where “where people could go in, get that break, get that quick meal,” Chambers said.

“Today you just don’t have that, and you’re also confronted with a host of more alternatives and better alternatives,” he said. “I would be very surprised if it moved the needle in any way, shape or form.”