Emotion helps sell: but it MUST match the product

McDonald’s has gotten in trouble in the UK over a television ad.

According to Adweek’s story:

“The McDonald’s spot, by Leo Burnett London, centers on a young man who lost his father a long time before and appears to have no memories of him. As he discusses his late dad on a walk into town with his mother, she describes him for the boy. It soon becomes clear that the kid isn’t much like his dad at all, except in one curious respect.”  He likes Filet-O-Fish, just like his dear (dead) dad.

The commercial is actually very well done, and the acting is excellent.  But those solid, even cinema worthy production values contribute to the incredible imbalance (not to mention tastelessness) of this spot. The problem, of course, is that McDonald’s and its advertising agency have expended a great deal of effort, using solid writing, cinematography and acting to play on some of our deepest emotions … all just to sell a fish sandwich.

Using emotion to engage the viewer is a great tactic… but that emotion must be at a level commensurate with the product being sold. Think of the classic AT&T spot from the 1980s “Joey Called Today”. That spot works because the mom’s tears are true to the product.  In this case, an unexpected long distance phone call from her son causes the mother to well up in tears. THAT is actually something that could happen.

On the other hand, a child finding closure in the death of a parent, and a wife coming to terms with the loss of a beloved husband does NOT happen over a fast food sandwich; hence, the anger and outrage.  It feels almost as if McDonald’s has played us for suckers.

Advertisers should not shy away from good storytelling about their product, but they must make sure that the emotional payoff promised is in line with what the product can truly deliver.

Alex D. Ball is the Creative Director at ADB Advertising.Alex D. Ball