Though McDonald's has managed to largely buck the economic downturn, the sun doesn't always shine bright over the Golden Arches. The burger behemoth had a rough weekend online, after their website targeting the black community — 365Black.com — suddenly and unexpectedly went viral in all the wrong ways, attracting the scorn of bloggers and social networking users who saw the site as stereotyping, pandering and, in some cases, offensive. And as the criticism intensified Monday, it put the Golden Arches on the defensive in managing their reputation online — an effort they've struggled with in the past.
The website, launched in 2003, features stories about experiences at McDonald's, scholarship and job opportunities and news on various sponsored initiatives targeted specifically at the black community. All fine, but some questioned the site's tone and content: 365black.com features only advertisements with exclusively black actors, and one page gives a bizarre analogy in which McDonald's likens their presence to the fruit-bearing African baobab tree, which, like McDonald's, is a "source of sustenance in the community."
Clumsy marketing? Almost certainly, but debate over the site ignited suddenly after a link to the site was posted to Fox Nation on August 20, where it attracted nearly unanimous vitriol from the 700+ comments. By August 23, 365Black was the second most-popular site on the social-networking site, Digg, and the link was being widely discussed on Twitter, where the effort quickly attracted the scorn of comedians Ze Frank and Aziz Ansari. Sharp-eyed commentators even noticed McDonald's had a second site targeted to the Asian community, one cringe-inducingly named MyInspirAsian.
McDonald's spokeswoman Julie Pottebaum said she was initially unaware of the controversy surrounding the site and did not offer an explanation for why the effort was suddenly attracting so much attention. In a statement to TIME, Neil Golden, McDonald's chief marketing officer, said the company was "proud to celebrate the diversity of our customers who reflect the diversity of our society" and that the website is a place where customers can "meet real people who's lives have been touched by McDonald's."
Social media consultant Muhammad Saleem says he wasn't surprised the site received a very different reception online. Saleem is the director of social media strategy for the Chicago Tribune's Chicago Now and was responsible for posting the McDonald's link to Digg. Saleem says McDonald's has never fared well in the social media space: While companies like Starbucks are constantly monitoring consumer feedback on outlets like Twitter, McDonald's remains largely invisible — and will likely continue to see its reputation suffer as a result.
"Even if the idea was a good one and truly was promoting black cultural heritage, it really does come off as manipulation and stereotyping," Saleem says. "It's part of a larger problem — McDonald's doesn't have the sort of brand loyalty and trust to be able to have this sort of campaign and have it be embraced."
wtf at the events page