Parts is Parts: Can Grant Imahara Save the McDonald’s Image?

Those of us who are old enough to remember the “Parts is Parts” and “Where’s the Beef?” campaigns are well aware that there are many, many myths about McDonald’s. I think that we can all agree that busting them is a good idea. But it is questionable whether McDonald’s should be the ones doing the busting and even more questionable if they are going about it in a way that’s beneficial for them.

First, let’s talk about the myths, most of which seem to hinge on the fact that the meat is ground. In all cases, I’m talking about the products sold at McDonald’s in the U.S.

1. Chicken McNuggets and other chicken items are made from leftover “parts” of the chicken. The truth: not anymore. Since 2003 the McNuggets at McDonald’s have been made with white breast meat. Even before 2003, the suggestion that McNuggets were made from “parts” is misleading. They were always made from meat.

2. McDonald’s hamburgers are made from “pink slime”. The truth: there is no “pink slime” in McDonald’s products today. However, pink slime gets a bad wrap.

3. McRibs and/or McDonald’s hamburgers are made from lips, eyeballs, and other non-meat parts. The truth: McDonald’s hamburgers are 100% beef, meaning meat, and the McRib is 100% pork. There are some other ingredients, such as preservatives, but no other cow or pig parts.

4. McDonald’s hamburgers are full of harmful chemicals, which you can tell because they don’t rot. The truth: McDonald’s hamburgers don’t rot the way that most homemade burgers will, but this is because the patties are thin and flat. These patties become dehydrated quickly, which keeps bacteria and mold from growing. The Burger Lab has a great piece describing some solid experiments testing this.

I’m sure there are more, but you get the idea.

McDonald’s has had to deal with these kinds of rumors, myths, and half-truths for decades. The company and its products have been attacked in films, on television, and online. So I guess it should be no surprise that they have begun to combat these claims with a myth-busting campaign.

You may have noticed their commercials recently. They feature people approaching an interactive poster on the street to ask it a question. The poster displays the text “Our food. Your questions.” or “What are your questions about our food?” along with the McDonald’s logo. The people in the ads ask questions such as:

“Does McDonald’s even sell real food?”
“What is really in your beef?”
“I’ve read that there is horse meat in your food.”
“Would you feed McDonald’s to your own family?”
“Pink slime. What’s up with that?”

People are encouraged to go online to get the answers. They have even hired former Mythbusters cast member Grant Imahara to create videos in which some of the questions are answered.

I have my doubts that this campaign will do good things for McDonald’s, for three main reasons.

  1. The commercials are off-putting. They show people asking questions, but the answers are not given. This is problematic for several reasons, including that it makes people think that other people think McDonald’s is crappy, scary, or dishonest. Not only is public opinion is extremely influential on the views of individuals, but many people watching the commercials may never have considered those questions before. Now they have the questions, but no answers.
    Not in the commercials, but at the beginning of one of Imahara’s videos, several people are shown talking to the interactive poster, saying things like, “I think it’s disgusting” and “Can’t eat at McDonald’s based on what’s in the food.”
  2. I’m not sure where the videos with Imahara are being promoted. They are posted on McDonald’s YouTube channel, but are not featured prominently on their website. It appears that the company is relying on media, both mainstream and social, to carry the message to everyone, including those who have seen the commercials. That’s a huge risk.
  3. There are some specific challenges to the honest, straightforward, skeptical approach that I doubt McDonald’s has considered. Skeptical activists (and scientists) have to deal with these, but our goals are quite different from McDonald’s. If what you want to do is sell hamburgers, this approach is probably not the best idea.
    One of the main problems is something called the “Familiarity Effect”. People tend to favor what’s familiar over what is unfamiliar. The old adage is true: familiarity breeds comfort. For example, when we see a list of judges on a ballot and we know nothing about any of them, we are most likely to vote for the person whose name graced the bulk of lawn signs we’ve seen recently. This effect is often used by advertisers to increase sales. Ads which repeat the product or company name often and those which maintain a “catch phrase” or reuse the same jingle year after year promote familiarity. But the same effect can work against the advertiser.

    A more specific version of Familiarity is the “Propaganda Effect”. This is the well-established tendency for people to rate familiar statements as true, even if they have been told at some point that those statements are false. We remember much less of what we take in than most people think, and when something sounds familiar, but we don’t recall where we heard it, familiarity often wins.

    An even more specific version of this is called the “Backfire Effect”. This is the name given to the phenomenon that skeptics often must face: when we are debunking a myth, we quite often expose individuals to the myth for the first time. This exposure makes the myth familiar, so that the next time they encounter it, if they fail to recall the context in which they heard about it (which is very, very common), they are more likely to believe it than they would have if we had never tried to debunk it in the first place. It’s a bit of a paradox. You can’t debunk something without first revealing it.

    This campaign tells people “Here’s what some people thought was true”. Even after debunking or explaining the full truth, the myths are now familiar to everyone who sees the commercials and/or videos.

  4. The last problem is, in my opinion, the biggest: the videos themselves can be off-putting to many. I admit to being put off by them myself. I generally try to curb my own curiosity about things such as where hot dogs come from because I know that if I knew, I’d be less likely to want to eat one. And I like hot dogs.
    Just to give you an idea, if I have to cook with fresh meat of any kind, I tend to do a lot of surgery. I do this when I’m eating, too. Ever seen someone just stick a chicken leg in their mouth and pull out a clean bone? I can’t eat after watching that. If it’s got a piece of fat on it, I’m not eating it. And if I spent any significant time thinking about the fact that what I’m eating was once a living, breathing, creature with eyes that ate and pooped and oinked or mooed, I’m quite sure that I would join my vegetarian friends and stop eating meat altogether. I can’t visit a meat packing plant. I had a friend whose family owned one and I had a hard time just sitting outside.

    And I know I’m not alone.

    These videos show large hunks of meat, fat and all, being ground up and pressed. The meat is not the bright pink color you see at the supermarket, where they take great pains to make the meat look appetizing. It’s pale, it’s ugly, and it all looks like sausage. When you get a burger at McDonald’s, you can barely see the patty in it. I’m okay with that. But these videos may even turn a skeptic like me away from the chain forever.

Screenshot from "What are McRib patties made from?"

Screenshot from “What are McRib patties made from?”

McDonald’s is probably well aware that this campaign was a big gamble. But there have been some benefits. People are talking about McDonald’s more. And the videos are educational. But how many people are actually going to watch the videos? What’s the profile of people willing to watch? Is is mostly people who are worried about the claims, or skeptics like me? How many watching the videos will be turned off by seeing the meat processed, instead of feeling better about it? These are questions I can’t answer, but it will be interesting to see how it all shakes out in the end.

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1 comment to Parts is Parts: Can Grant Imahara Save the McDonald’s Image?

  • Matt

    I actually think it’s an outstanding advertising campaign – it’s all about food! They make it very, very clear that they are talking about food. Many times. You talk about how people deal with familiarity and propaganda and you’re right on point. When people think about negative things associated with McDonald’s, they’ll think “oh yeah…I heard something about that. They’re the company with the questionable food?” instead of “McDonalds is the company with questionably legal employment policies and processes and that is also known for doing things like creating and publishing its own ridiculous documents on how to live on two minimum wage jobs”. If people had better insight into some of what they actually do, they’d have more reason to write their local governments. McDonald’s is perfectly happy to have the food issue at the top of everyone’s minds.