Making a Happier Meal for McDonald's

McDonald's 'Pay With Lovin' by Leo Burnett Chicago.
McDonald's 'Pay With Lovin' by Leo Burnett Chicago.

Why all the hatin' around the fast food chain's sentimental "Pay with Lovin' " campaign?

Valentine's Day saw the close of what could be one of McDonald's most-polarizing campaigns, the often-maligned "Pay with Lovin'."

McDonald's, which declined an interview with Campaign, began teasing the new commercial in advance of the Super Bowl, explaining that customers might be randomly selected to pay for their orders with an "act of Lovin'," such as a call to a loved one or paying someone a compliment.

The company said in a statement, "We recognize, and our customers do too, all the negativity that surrounds daily life and we are choosing to celebrate lovin’ more. McDonald’s is in a unique position to use its scale to bring back the positivity with more uplifting content and conversations in the lovin’ spirit."

The commercial, created by Leo Burnett, played well with Super Bowl viewers, according to an analysis of social-media engagement and sentiment by iSpot.TV: "Pay with Lovin' " ranked fourth among the 80 national ads aired during the big game in terms of digital activity, racking up 21,853,390 online plays and 540,791 social-media actions. Plus, 87% of those who saw it online liked it.

And, in the two weeks after the game, McDonald’s captured the biggest gains in two YouGov BrandIndex metrics: the largest increase in word-of-mouth and an 8% leap in purchase consideration. The BrandIndex is a daily measure of the public's perception of brands.

Then, the hating started.

Why all the negativity? The campaign is rather benign, encouraging people to express positive emotions for each other. Is this a case of social media haters, in both the press and the public, piling on?

"The commercial is overtly emotional," says Paul Zak, a professor of economics, psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University who studies trust and generosity in individuals and cultures. "There's probably a memory effect in which the impact of the commercial is not independent of my expectation of the brand and other commercials I've seen."

In other words, he says, we have different standards for different companies. Tom's Shoes, for example, may be able to get away with things that McDonald's can't.

Read more: how McDonald's markets transparency

Veb Anand, executive director of strategy at Brand Union, says, "The McDonald's brand has always been approachable and had a great sense of authenticity. In its latest campaigns, it loses that sense of authenticity. The effort to forge an emotional connection is so obvious that it's transparent."

There's another problem, according to Anand: McDonald's is trying to have it both ways. Budweiser could get away with its heart-tugging lost puppy commercial because the whole thing is removed from the experience of drinking beer. But, "What you see in the commercials is not what most people actually experience in a McDonald's store," he says.

McDonald's recently divided public opinion with another overtly emotional campaign: January's "Signs," which portrayed a range of McDonald's signs over the years emblazoned with community messages including "thank you veterans," "God protect the USA" and "we remember 9/11."

Eric Johnson, founder and president of Ignited, thinks the whole "lovin' it" thing is played out. "It's saturated and feels bland," he says. While McDonald's has always played a strong role in American culture and eating, he wants to see the brand demonstrate why it's still relevant and "why it should exist for the next 20 years."

Besides, advertising can't make up for product misses. Says Judith Carr-Rodriguez, president and founding partner at Figliulo&Partners, "The current campaign is trying to take the brand to an emotional place at a time when their products and service are not as strong as they should be."

In January, MCD reported a sales slump in 2014, with an especially bad fourth quarter. Soon after, it replaced CEO Don Thompson with Steve Easterbrook.

Despite what media experts say — and the company's CEO replacement — there's evidence that the campaign wasn't as big a failure as some haters think. According to YouGov BrandIndex, "Pay with Lovin'" has paradoxically gotten more people to consider eating there while not changing consumer perceptions of the brand.

McDonald's YouGov Buzz score, which asks respondents whether they've heard anything positive or negative about the brand, ended up at 3, or just slightly positive, with zero indicating neutral sentiment. Meanwhile, intent to purchase rose from 36% to 39%.

Maybe it was the prospect of free food.

What should McDonald's do? How do you advertise fast and cheap in a way that doesn't seem negative? Anand says, "The service part is not necessarily something they should focus on. There are still some iconic elements of their menu which do mean something. McDonald's is about a Big Mac. It's not meant to be healthy; it's meant to be something that tastes good, that you can get quickly and have fun while doing it."

Can you hate that?

Disclosure: Susan Kuchinskas inherited some McDonald's stock from her dad and hasn't figured out what to do with it.

Subscribe today for just $116 a year

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to , plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events

Become a subscriber


Don’t miss your daily fix of breaking news, latest work, advice and commentary.

register free