Cheap Burgers Are No Laughing Matter: McD's and The Impact of Cultural Differences in Outsourced Marketing Campaigns

In two previous posts - "Global Sales and The Customer Journey: The Effect of Cultural Values On Individual Choices", and "Consumer Segmentation: The Influence of Cultural Factors On Purchasing Behaviour" - we've talked about the cultural dimension known as Collectivims/Individualism to briefly explain the correlation between culture and consumer behavior: to further expand on the topic, this week we're going to discuss about an example of humour gone wrong in a 2005 McDonald's campaign that targeted Chinese customers (intended as residents of mainland China).

The ad, created by advertising agency Leo Burnett, shown a middle-aged man kneeling and begging for a discount (the man's coupon for a video store had expired and the vendor turned him down: the message the ad poorly attempted to convey was that people did not have to beg to take advantage of a McDonald's promotion, available all year round).

“Customer: Just one more week, one week…[Owner shakes his head]. Three days' time. Just three days, okay?
Owner: How many times have I told you! Our discount period is over.
Customer: Sir, please, I'm begging you! [kneels and grabs at the owner's trouser legs]
Voice-over: Luckily McDonald's understands the pain I feel when I miss an opportunity, and it gives me 365 days of discounts.”

According to China Daily, "80 percent of Xi'an residents polled felt insulted by the commercial", while the China Internet Information Center quoted Jiang Zhibin, dean of the advertising department at Shanghai International Studies University, claiming that the ad was inappropriate as it ignored traditional Chinese culture and thinking:
"Getting down on one's knees is always considered humiliating and something that represents indignity for most Chinese. That scene will make people wonder if there is any implication of unfairness between the company and consumers".

Marina Leung - the senior director for corporate relations at McDonald's China Development Co. in Hong Kong, that at the time supervised the Chinese mainland market - attempted to explain that the ad was simply trying to attract customers through the use of a humorous approach, but viewers failed to be amused nevertheless.

The China Advertising Association reportedly asked McDonald's to cut the kneeling during the inspection procedure, but the request was ignored. As a result, the commercial was withdrawn shortly after it first aired.

To fully understand why and how this unfortunate blunder occurred, we must consider that:

- sense of humor is culture-bound (deep culture/below the water line);

- the agency that created the ad seemed to have little knowledge of the local context (mainland China). With regard to this particular point, it must be noted that, according to a study on "Cultural Differences in Humor Perception, Usage, and Implications", "Hong Kong students reported more use of aggressive and self-defeating humor and less use of affiliative and self-enhancing humor than mainland Chinese students. This could be explained by the fact that the bicultural background of Hong Kong makes Confucianism and collectivism less influential there than in mainland China".

Another (more recent) blunder related to a misguided, ethnocentric usage of "humor" in advertising is discussed in the post "Challenges in Cross Cultural Marketing and Advertising", while related articles on culture and consumer behavior are available at the following links:

Reasons Why Market Research Matters in Cross Cultural Advertising

Where Do Babies Come From? a Tale of Misunderstandings and Corporate Negligence

Buyer Personas: An Introduction to Psychographic Segmentation

Challenges in Cross Cultural Marketing and Advertising



  • Hall, E. T. (1976). "Beyond culture". New York, NY: Doubleday
  • China Daily, "Chinese kneeling for discount in McDonald's ad" [Online]
  • China Daily, "McDonald's ad banned due to insulting plot"  [Online]
  • China Internet Information Center: "McDonald's Controversial Ad Pulled" [Online]
  • South China Morning Post: "McDonald's pulls ad, but begs to differ on 'insult'." [Online]
  • Jiang, T., Li, H., & Hou, Y. (2019). Cultural Differences in Humor Perception, Usage, and Implications. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 123.

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