Out of all the Earths throughout the multiverse, apparently this is one where a cute, dumb Rick and Morty-related publicity stunt could go horribly off the rails.
This past Saturday marked the culmination of an unholy, synergistic alliance between the animated hit and McDonald’s. It had been building since April, when Rick and Morty maniacs got an unexpected first glimpse of the show’s intensely anticipated third season. Aside from living up to sky-high hype, the surprise episode was notable for an extended riff on Rick’s time-traveling quest to get some Szechuan McNugget sauce–an actual obscure dipper tied into the 1998 Disney movie, Mulan. Riding high on off-the-charts engagement, the official Rick and Morty Twitter account playfully nudged McDonald’s. Never one to miss a trick, McDonald’s responded right away. The fervor grew. Change.org petitions were drawn up, and McDonald’s chefs were politely begged. McDonald’s even gifted show co-creator Justin Roiland with a tub of the fabled teriyaki-tinted corn syrup. Finally, McDonald’s announced it would make the sauce available to the public for one day only, on the Saturday following the show’s season finale. Finally, the world’s most monolithic fast-food chain would meet one of the world’s most fiercely devoted fanbases in person.
What could go wrong?
As it turns out, everything could go wrong–and it did. McDonald’s dramatically underestimated the demand for its Szechuan sauce and many stores sold out instantaneously. Fans who left empty-handed were not, as they say, lovin’ it. In fact, they practically rioted. Meanwhile, packets of the sauce are going on eBay for thousands of dollars. All in all, it was a gross display of capitalism gone awry, and it was embarrassing for everybody.
It didn’t have to be this way. First of all, McDonald’s should have done more demographic research about the show. Rick and Morty has become the no. 1 comedy among millennials, an audience that includes the kind of stoked young people who’d happily go out of their way for branded Szechuan sauce as a goof. By wildly underestimating demand, McDonald’s created a scarcity. Sometimes, a little exclusivity can be helpful in motivating people to leave their houses. In this instance, it had fans driving all over town and waiting in serpentine lines for hours. Another thing about fans in this age group is that they are Extremely Online. By pissing them off, McDonald’s awakened a sleeping social media giant. Responses to Mickey D’s “How do you do, fellow kids”-style tweets were apocalyptic. They were so out of proportion to the issue, though, that they created a second wave of social sharing, devoted to mocking those in the first wave. Which brings us to the next problem.
Shame on McDonald’s for creating scarcity, but shame on Rick and Morty fans for not knowing how to act. Any disappointment at not getting the special sauce mentioned by your favorite TV show should start and end with “that’s too bad.” Instead, people were scream-chanting “Give us sauce!” at hapless minimum-wage employees just trying to live their lives. It wasn’t the first time fans of the show failed to keep their cool. Co-creator Dan Harmon spoke with Fast Company recently about how the rabid demand for season three took the form of Twitter harassment. He’s also publicly denounced the show’s male fans who have inflicted abuse upon recently recruited female writers like Jessica Gao. Word of mouth is what made Rick and Morty into the unlikely hit it’s become, but word of mouth about the show’s fans is now toxic. Anyone hearing about them before the show itself might be put off from ever watching.
It’s a problem not just restricted to this one show, by any means. Fandom today is out of control. For one thing, the mainstreaming of certain formerly nerdy properties has led to purity tests and hostility. There’s also the culture of responsiveness ushered in by Snakes on a Plane, in the sense of letting fans essentially crowdsource a line into a movie. Once fans got a taste of feeling like they were in control, they wanted it all the time. But fans whose every whim is catered to become entitled–and entitled fans are known to go Gamergate and beyond.
In the wake of this weekend’s disastrous sauce frenzy, the show’s creators have distanced themselves from McDonald’s and admonished their own fans. As for McDonald’s, the brand issued a statement packed with sweaty references to the show, promising to bring back the sauce soon and to be more careful with the rollout next time. Nobody comes out of this incident looking very good. McDonald’s seems opportunistic, terminally try-hard, and insufficiently protective of its workers. (The overlords never considered who exactly would be the ones having to deliver bad news all day.) So in other words, McDonald’s looks how it always looks. Rick and Morty fans, on the other hand, will always be stained by this incident, and by extension, the show will be as well. Perhaps the most shame of all, though, belongs to Rick and Morty fans less devoted than, say, this guy, and who are now forever linked to him. Casual fans should be happy the show just stuck the landing on a critically, creatively successful third season. Instead, they probably want to grab a portal gun and disappear into a new planet. (Or possibly just a different show.)