Are brands right to axe ads after a social media backlash?

With McDonald’s pulling its latest ad after just four days following consumer complaints, are more brands bowing to the pressure of social media and canning their creative to prevent further brand damage?

From FMCG and retail to travel and luxury, brands across every sector of the consumer landscape are communicating their social purpose in a bid to connect with customers.

In order to resonate, the message must feel authentically connected to the brand’s values. Miss the mark, and as recent high profile casualties suggest, today’s savvy consumers are more than happy to use their voice on social media to punish any brand that lets them down.

McDonald’s was in the firing line this week for “inappropriately and insensitively using bereavement and grief to sell fast food” after an advert aired in the UK showing a young boy trying to find common ground with his dead father over a Filet-O-Fish.

The ad split opinion on Twitter, with some users blasting the fast food chain for exploiting fatherless children, pointing to the cynical proximity of the advert to Fathers’ Day in June. Others, however, said they were saddened that McDonald’s had been forced to pull a “touching” advert, asking if we are all too easily offended.

READ MORE: McDonald’s pulls ‘dead dad’ ad after string of complaints

Another stark example is PepsiCo, which was forced to pull its campaign fronted by model Kendall Jenner just three days in after being savaged on social media for belittling the Black Lives Matter movement.

On 4 April alone Pepsi generated more than 427,000 mentions on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, 53.3% of which were negative. Consumers rejected PepsiCo’s intended “global message of unity, peace and understanding”, accusing the drinks giant of being “tone deaf” in its failure to understand consumers.

By comparison, since first airing on 12 May the McDonald’s “dead dad” ad has been mentioned over 2,000 times online. The majority of mentions – 840 in total – were made on 16 May, according to the Brandwatch figures.

Sentiment analysis shows 58.2% of mentions were negative, although as Brandwatch senior PR data analyst Kellan Terry explains, analysis was made more difficult by the fact the conversation was “overly sarcastic”. Strikingly, some 67% of unique authors discussing the issue were male.

The public told us clearly we had got it wrong and there was no other decision to be made other than apologise and pull the advert.


The response from McDonald’s was almost as swift as the social media backlash. After just four days the fast food chain pulled the advert, with the last ad running on 17 May.

In a statement the brand apologised for disappointing customers, reiterating that the company had no intention of causing any upset and that it would review its creative process to “ensure this situation never occurs again”.

Speaking directly to Marketing Week, a McDonald’s spokesperson referred to the impact public comment had on the company’s decision to pull the advert.

“While we received some positive comments, they did not outweigh the upset we had caused among others. The public told us clearly we had got it wrong and there was no decision to be made other than apologise and pull the advert.

“As a brand that touches most people (and families) in the UK, it’s important we go as far as we can to understand the sensitivities around the topics in our advertising.”

Was it right to react?

McDonald’s decision to pull the ad appears to be based purely on consumer reaction as it pre-empted any ruling by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

The ASA received 257 complaints before the advert was pulled on 17 May, versus a “small handful” of supportive tweets and emails.

“From our perspective, McDonald’s action means it has taken it out of our hands, so we’re not in a position to judge whether or not the ad would have been a problem,” explains senior media relations officer, Matt Wilson.

“It is probably safe to say, albeit without us going through our processes, that it’s unlikely this ad would have broken the rules. We know it happens [brands pulling pre-ruling] and maybe there’s a slight trend in terms of increasing frequency of brands doing this.”

Pulling the ad did not help McDonald’s improve consumer opinion or alter people’s purchase decisions, according to YouGov BrandIndex data. Comparing the period of 16 to 18 May to the previous week, the index shows the company’s reputation dropped 5.1 points, with the buzz around the brand down 4 points. This means McDonald’s remains behind fast food rivals Burger King and KFC.

However, the episode had little impact on consumer purchase intent and consideration it seems, which according to YouGov rose by 1.4 points and 1 point, respectively. When it comes to purchase intent, McDonald’s remains top of the list of fast food chains, a full three points above nearest rival Gregg’s.

READ MORE: How brands can bounce back from disaster

Wilson agrees McDonald’s reaction to pull the ad could have been more concerned with the social media reaction than anticipation of a ban.

“The potential damage to brand reputation [caused by a ban] could have played a part, but I think the bigger thing for McDonald’s was thinking about the general fallout,” he explains.

“There was acres of media coverage about this and it wasn’t just national, it was international. This story was going round the globe and maybe they’ve taken the decision to cut their losses rather than have it drag out.”

Prevention is better than cure

Brands are increasingly bringing social and earned media into their communications planning process, according to Kantar Media CEO Andy Brown, who argues that thoroughly testing creative before launch is much cheaper than having to pull a high profile ad.

“Use as much of the data you’ve got before you launch an expensive creative campaign,” advises Brown.

“I have no idea what it would have cost [McDonald’s] to not only build the creative, but pull the ad at short notice and back-fill the media slots they’ve paid for. That will not have been cheap.”

The issue of personal taste is something you cannot understand until you actually take a campaign out to the people, argues Brown, who advises brands to draw on a variety of data from quantitative and qualitative sources, as well as neuroscience, in order to have a holistic perspective.

“I am very conscious of not doing things in a bubble by having people in the marketing department decide among themselves what works without testing it. The cost of testing ads is lower than it ever has been,” he adds.

Standing by the vision

Brands that stand by their vision and wait for a ruling are, however, often rewarded. In 2014 Sainsbury’s refused to pull its Christmas advert depicting the story of the famous Christmas Day 1914 truce between British and German soldiers during the First World War.

The supermarket was accused of causing offence by using World War I imagery to promote a company, criticism strenuously denied by Sainsbury’s head of brand Mark Given. He emphasised the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the advert, which has now been watched more than 19 million times on YouTube.

Despite generating 727 complaints – 400 more than the McDonald’s advert – the ASA ruled that while some people may have found the use of the First World War for advertising purposes “distasteful”, the Sainsbury’s ad did not cause serious harm or offence, and therefore did not break the rules.

Know your reason why

Over the past two months McDonald’s, PepsiCo and even Dove – which has been widely credited with improving the depiction of real women in advertising through its Real Beauty campaign – have been criticised for failing to understand their market or how their social purpose relates to consumers.

PepsiCo left itself open to accusations of operating in a “self-affirming bubble” after it emerged that the Kendall Jenner campaign had been devised by its in-house content creation arm.

READ MORE: Pepsi’s ad failure shows the importance of diversity and market research

Dove, meanwhile, was criticised last week for stretching its real women concept too far by introducing bottles reflecting different body shapes.

Centaur Media content director and former Marketing Week editor, Ruth Mortimer, described the “personalised” bottles as gimmicky, arguing the concept was counter productive as it makes body shape the focus, “rather than an irrelevance to the true value of women”.

The need brands feel to promote their social purpose is often driven by consumer desire, argues Tim Burge, culture and trends director at consumer insight agency Join the Dots.

“Suddenly I think there is permission or expectation from consumers that brands should have a perspective on all sorts of things within society. There has been a decrease in trust in relation to other bastions of society, whether that be politicians or banking. This has placed more emphasis on marketers and products to try to give a kind of perspective and say something meaningful,” says Burge.

He argues that consumers are going on a similar journey in terms of searching for their voice and expressing it via social media, which creates a “perfect storm”. Burge cites Heineken’s recent purpose-driven ‘Open Your World’ campaign as a recent example of a brand getting purpose right by tapping into the notion that drinking beer is about togetherness.

The campaign, challenging Brits to break down barriers and find common ground with those who have opposing views, has received criticism too though, not least from from Marketing Week columnist Mark Ritson, who accused the beer brand of sacrificing commercial profit to fit its purpose-led agenda.

Discussing the Heineken campaign at a recent Oystercatchers event (10 May), marketing and innovation director at Diageo Europe, Ed Pilkington, argued that alcohol brands have permission to tell a purpose-driven story, as long as it is rooted in truth.

“Where brands go wrong on purpose, and we’ve done it a few times at Diageo, is you create some purpose that has no relevance to where the brand came from or its roots, because it plays to something you think might be right. So you’ve got to be really clear about your truth, what it’s all about and root yourself in that,” said Pilkington.

READ MORE: Boots and Diageo on why brand purpose doesn’t have to be ‘lofty and do good’

Brown agrees that in the social media world authenticity and consistency are critical, especially as consumers have never been more advertising literate.

“They are smart and quite cynical, and they very quickly see whether a brand is being authentic in its association with a social cause. And if they see through it the negatives could be quite significant,” he adds.

However, the fact consumers are actively encouraging brands to have an authentic perspective on issues within society presents an opportunity for those who can strike the right tone. This may, however, mean brands need to acknowledge that taking a position could polarise opinion, particularly on social media, and therefore having the right insight will help them know whether to stick by their campaign.

“If there’s something really far wide of the mark I can understand why people are choosing to pull back on that and I think that’s the careful balance,” Burge adds. “But hopefully if the right insight is gathered up front you’ll know whether you should stick to your guns or not, and you can have a sense of how it’s going to play out.”