Why McDonald's bereavement ad got it right
A view from Kevin Chesters

Why McDonald's bereavement ad got it right

As someone who lost his dad when he was young, Ogilvy's Kevin Chesters believes the ad that McDonald's pulled was brave and socially relevant.

So, McDonald’s has pulled its ad featuring a recently bereaved little boy and his mum chatting about his dad.  At the same time Skittles has withdrawn its Mother’s Day film. I also don’t know if any of you noticed but there was a little bit of chat on the interweb recently about some film Pepsi did.

All this has kicked off a "debate" ("outraged Tweet-fit") about what is/isn’t taboo for advertisers. It also seems to have created circumstances where it’s suddenly fashionable to wade into all advertisers like some roided-up drunk in a pub car park.

If you’ve not seen it, the McDonald’s film features a boy talking to his mum about what his dad was like. It turns out that the thing they have most in common is the Filet-o-Fish (I think they’re both very wrong about their burger choice BTW, but I digress). A few people (not many) decided this wasn’t an appropriate topic and then the usual outrage-snowball started from Twitter to Piers Morgan’s sofa (nice performance, Maisie!)

First off, I should declare that I don’t work for Leo Burnett or the Publicis Groupe. Or for McDonald’s, for that matter, so I have absolutely no dog in this fight beyond an opinion of what is and isn’t (or should and shouldn’t) be "taboo" in advertising. Secondly, I should also declare that I lost my dad when I was young. I think this gives me more right to pass comment on McDonald’s recent work than a lot of the angry wangry outrage brigade.

So I’ll give you my two-penneth on McDonald’s before I get into the debate as to whether the topic (or any topic) is appropriate for an ad. The film is good. The topic is handled with sensitivity and I think the overall tone is respectful. There are some very accurate touches (I held my dad’s watch for hours after he died, just trying to get my head together) and the performances are great. Everyone involved in it should feel rightly proud of it as a film – that’s my view as a chief strategy officer, as a dad of a little boy and as a big little boy without a dad. 

There has been a lot of this recently – debate about what ads should and shouldn’t be about, what is taboo for the vendors of fizzy drinks and chicken nuggets. I think I’ve got a pretty simple POV on it all. So, why did Heineken and McDonald’s get it right and Pepsi get it so very wrong? It isn’t rocket science; it is simply the rules of good advertising.

The best work has always been socially relevant work, work that generates or joins a conversation that is bigger than advertising. Advertising has always been brilliant when it embeds itself in popular culture and/or becomes part of the vernacular. Life is rarely the 2.4 permanently smiley world of perfect teeth and tidy kitchens. 

A couple of years ago McDonald’s did an ad about a teenage boy dealing with the arrival of a new step-dad in his life. Is that taboo? Should advertisers be avoiding the sensitive topic of blended families? Should we be taking this child’s difficult family circumstances to flog the latest McBrilliant Burger with extra bacon? Well, frankly, yes if we do it correctly. One-third of people in the UK are now either step-children, step-parents, step-siblings or step-grandparents. This is life. This is Britain 2017. McDonald’s was right to acknowledge it. And once again, the film was beautifully observed and brilliantly executed. 

People die. Families split up. People of same sex do (and should be able to) marry whomever they want. There are racial tensions. There are political arguments. Man is mortal, flowers wilt, life is not bloody perfect. Advertising should reflect life. And life is not often the lovely Oxo family these days. 

The best work has always been brave. The ads we remember took risks with topics and category conventions. Budweiser’s "Born the hard Way" take on immigration in 2017 America and Lynx’s gay kiss ad were two recent good examples. I’d hate it if all this faux-outrage and bandwaggoning stopped clients taking risks with strategy, topic or execution.

As long as it is handled with care and executed with skill (where Pepsi went so SPECTACULARLY WRONG), then I’m not sure there is much taboo for advertisers. It’s easy in the maelstrom of Twitter outrage for advertisers and agencies to panic and overreact. 

And finally, if the McDonald’s ad encouraged one kid to open up about bereavement, or showed everyone that losing a parent is unbelievably hard for anyone, then I genuinely think it was worthwhile. I think I’d have appreciated this film all those years ago.

The Filet-o-Fish though? Let’s have words… 

Kevin Chesters is the chief strategy officer of Ogilvy & Mather London.
@hairychesters