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21 December 2017

Adult cartoons influencing popular culture (Warning: NSFW)

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There are a lot of reasons to like Rick and Morty. The edgy Adultswim cartoon features the likes of a grand-father named Rick; a dimension-hopping, pessimistic inventor-slash-scientist who is accompanied by his dim-witted, yet optimistic grandson Morty. If adult cartoons and irreverent humor are not your cup of tea, let’s at least appreciate the (impressive) fact that both of these characters’ voices are done by the same guy, the star and co-creator, Justin Roiland. While some critics may say the list of reasons to like the show has recently dwindled. There is a lot more to say about the cartoon than the recent stories in the news. If you have seen videos surfacing on YouTube featuring the show’s fanatics partaking in public freak-outs at McDonalds franchises across the nation, you know what I’m getting at. While some of you may have caught wind of the show “through a friend” (no need to be ashamed). Or, perhaps you found yourself scratching your head and feeling “out of the loop” when a crowd that stretched around several blocks in Williamsburg (or whatever your local city is) this past summer responded “RICK AND MORTY!” when asked what they’re waiting in line for.

The line was to get a picture with the notorious “Rickmobile” (I know because I was there). This cross-country food and fan-fare infused tour to promote season three of the show clearly illustrates that Adultswim and the R&M creators don’t play around when it comes to promoting their show. They want their advertising, like their show to be unique, outside of the box, and to appeal to their die-hard fan base. So what exactly happened? Gimmie the Sauce, Boss The real question here is: why did the McDonald’s Szechuan Sauce from 1998, become relevant again…ya’ know, only 19 years after the release of Disney’s Mulan, the movie it was aimed to promote? Or is the better question: why did this sauce become such a soft spot for the over-enthusiastic R&M fan base?

To answer both of these questions, let’s first understand a bit more about the show and what type of fans it attracts. Then, and only then can we determine exactly who is to blame for all this viral freak-out-video insanity – the cartoon, the fans, or the fast food franchise? Starting with the show’s origin, the year was BYT 2006. And of course, BYT stands for Before YouTube, which is technically untrue since YouTube was founded in 2005, but the platform did not gain its widespread popularity until ’07 – ’08. Channel 101 began as a monthly film festival where content creators could post “pilot” TV shows about anything…as long as it was under 5 minutes. This concept was created by (one of R&M’s co-creators) Dan Harmon. Shortly after word got out about this new forum for up-and-coming writers and sketch comedians alike, Channel 101 was graced with a video submission from Justin Roiland detailing the “real” relationship between Back 2 the Future’s Doc and Marty (NSFW). To make a long story short, these two creators began to work more closely after this pilot had created some buzz, and eventually the show went on to get picked up by Adultswim.

The show’s content is chock full of irreverent and obscure cut scenes and references. Packed to the brim with everything from your classic Redgrin Grumble references (yep, not a real reference but still very funny) and instances of Rick breaking the fourth wall and demanding the creators to “roll credits”. Needless to say it is easy for the writers to sprinkle in just about anything at any time or place in the show’s storyline. Now, cue niche McDonald’s reference. In the first episode of the most recent third season of R&M, we follow Rick and an alien counterpart who is keeping him captive inside his own memories (yes, very The Matrix-esque). The alien yearns to go back to the memory of the day Rick first invented interdimensional time and space travel so he may steal the highly sought after invention. As is the norm within the R&M series universe, Rick took his captor on a detour, to…yes you guessed it – 1998 McDonalds so they may satisfy Rick’s hunger for that delicious dipping sauce! To quote Rick’s character directly “this is the only place we’re going to be able to try it – is in my memory”. For viewers this saucy reference chalked up to a silly cut scene that derailed users from the mounting somber tone behind the episode’s plot – keeping it light, funny, and packed with jokes as per usual. However, before the episode even came to a conclusion, the creators took one more shot in the closing sequence – mentioning the Szechuan Sauce again, claiming that it is Rick’s “series arc”. Again for viewers, this callback was a lazy-yet-funny way to cram a few more laughs into highly-anticipated but fleeting episode one of the new-to-air season three.

 

Enter: Famous Fast Food Franchise.

Cue: Foolish Follies McDonald’s, saw the dated reference in a new edgy cartoon series as something very differently—as an opportunity. Up to this point in 2017 (and for years prior), McDonald’s has been struggling. Particularly in the U.S. market, McDonald’s has been pulling just about every trick they had up their sleeves out, like announcing that they now serve breakfast all day or revamping their Big Mac to feature a “Grand Mac” and a “Mac Jr.”. Mickey D’s work to change their consumer-perception of having cheap, unhealthy, or “fake” food had been a challenge that they hadn’t quite been able to overcome. Until they got wind of the ability to again re-position their brand as, wait for it…cool! Well, not cool how you or I might think of it, this was cool in the eyes of fully-grown, comic-obsessed nerds…but, it is still cool none the less. It became clear after a Twitter-storm of obsessed fans that McDonalds was announcing the return of the Szechuan sauce. Promoting it and several other limited release flavors through the site buttermilkcrispytenders.com. This was their way of making it seem like…ya’ know; they weren’t doing this in a direct response to Rick & Morty. Perhaps it was the fact that the brand mention came about so unexpectedly within the cartoon.

Or maybe, McDonald’s thought that they could always backpedal, with the “it’s just a joke” card, considering the context of the show. But almost as soon as the word was out that the glorious sauce would make a triumphant return, it also became clear that McDonald’s was going to do this without the help of Adultswim or Rick and Morty. Which brings to question – what did they think they were doing!? It was not hard to miss how hyped people were for the show and how passionate these fans were, after all, that’s exactly how this sauce even came into the conversation twenty years later! Low and behold, the fast-food giant we all know and love trekked on without skipping a beat, and that might be an understatement! Some fans and third-party observers with no stake in the game would argue the whole “look and feel” of their promotion, copied elements directly from the cartoon series. One critic who noticed this and voiced his opinion happened to be the show’s creator Dan, in an interview with Polygon he cited copying of the art and the font as just one of the elements that peeved him regarding this hijacked promotion. Not to hate on McDonald’s, but we’re calling this a hijack because it was exactly that, a (mishandled) case of hijack marketing.

 

When The Sauce Cleared, Who Was Left Standing?

So now that the highly anticipated day of October 7th, 2017 has come and gone, how did it all pan out? Did you get the sauce!? Is McDonald’s the one thing we’re all looking forward to again, like how it was after 3v3 intramural basketball practice in 1999? Since McDonald’s was so bold as to go in to this one on their own, it is only fair to say that they made their bed and now need to lie in it. To be fair and transparent, I must state that they did at least apologize. Yet, in many ways it feels like damage control. Like they’re trying to clean up a sticky Szechuan sauce-ridden mess. The reports in the news or the #SzechuanSauce mentions clogging up your Twitter feed around mid-October were no joke. This whole ordeal was not just a headache for hyperactive fans, or underpaid McDonald’s employees who had to put up with them. McDonald’s locations across the nation experienced police intervention when near-riot outbreaks began in response to the lack of surplus Szechuan. Had the folks over at Mickey D’s reached out to Adultswim or Dan and Justin in the beginning, they may have been able to gain more insight on just how fanatical R&M followers are and how they might act…or react (especially)! As the old saying goes, “it takes a village…to get McDonald’s to bring back Szechuan Sauce in both volume and number of locations that meet the market demand,” which is something you can actually look forward to this winter season and for more than just one day two (or 40 minutes depending on who you ask)! While Dan and Justin made sure to distance themselves from the whole sauce-release fiasco, I think it is safe to say that McDonald’s learned their lesson.

This is a lesson any brand should take away from this tale: you cannot cut corners when it comes to doing your homework to know who your audience is. In the specific cases of hijack marketing, that truth holds even more significantly. As we have seen from The Great Sauce Debacle of ’17 – there is no substitute for the real thing! If you’re going to do something aligned with a specific like, interest, or piece of content; especially in this world fueled by online reviews, Twitter-storms, and unapologetic people making sarcastic memes behind ironic usernames – do not think for a second that you can pull a fast one on your consumers. Especially if those same consumers are the type to dress in full regalia and stand in line for hours on end just to hear someone talk on a panel about a fictional cartoon series. Talk about a lethal blend of passion and free time!