Saturday, for one day only, McDonald's offered fans of Rick and Morty—an adult science fiction show on Adult Swim—the chance to experience a meme in real life.
In the premiere of the just-concluded third season of the show, Rick, one of the main characters, delivers a soliloquy about his love for McDonald's Szechuan Sauce, a then obscure condiment offered by the fast food chain in 1998 as part of a promotion for Disney's Mulan.
The sauce quickly became an obsession among Rick and Morty's fans, and in it McDonald's saw a revenue opportunity. Six months after the Szechuan Sauce episode premiered, the fast food chain announced it would be bringing the condiment back—but only for a single day, October 7, and only at select locations.
As we reported Sunday, the entire promotion was an absolute shit show. McDonald's couldn't keep up with demand for the garlic-filled sweet sauce, and fans were extremely angry. Fights reportedly broke out at McDonald's locations. Packets of the sauce sold for hundreds of dollars on eBay, fans sent hundreds of angry tweets to McDonald's, and dozens of news stories were written.
Most upsettingly, low-wage McDonald's employees had to bear the brunt of irate customers upset over a one-ounce packet of sauce from a fictional cartoon that can be made in roughly ten minutes. Despite all the chaos, McDonald's clearly came out on top. This is the first time it's been noteworthy for anything other than selling unhealthy food in years.
By Sunday night, McDonald's had announced that Szechuan Sauce would be coming back in wider release this winter.
Many Rick and Morty fans, as well as some professional public relations experts, are speculating that the Szechuan Sauce shortage—and subsequent wide-release announcement—may have been planned from the start. A sauce-themed false flag operation, if you will.
"I think that they planned this exactly. It kinda reminds me of the Taylor Swift Apple Music situation," Ed Zitron, the CEO and founder of EZPR, a public relations firm, told me over Twitter DM.
In 2015, Taylor Swift refused to stream her new album on Apple Music because it wasn't paying royalties to artists for customers' using the service's three-month free trial. Apple quickly reversed the decision, and was applauded for changing course. All the while, it drummed up interest in Apple Music.
On Reddit, Discord, and Twitter, fans have openly speculated that this was the plan from the get-go. "The phrase 'you spoke. We listened' is the biggest giveaway that this was totally planned," Reddit user Vinylzen said in a post to the Rick and Morty subreddit. Many other users on that Reddit thread seemed to buy into the theory as well.
Another user on Discord, Z-ark07 said "the whole sauce thing was a good plan for McDonald's."
When I asked McDonald's about what its true Szechuan sauce strategy was, a representative simply directed me to the same tweet from Sunday night. Motherboard has no insider knowledge about what the original plan was, but we'd like to know. Are you an employee of McDonald's and have information about whether the shortage was purposeful? Here's how you can contact me or my colleagues securely.
Justin Roiland, the co-creator of Rick and Morty, said on Twitter that he and the show had nothing to do with the sauce situation. "Not happy w/how this was handled," he wrote.
Zitron, meanwhile, said he's seen similar schemes before in public relations. The formula is anger the fans of a trendy TV show, cause a controversy, then reap the benefits of newfound notoriety. "Remember how there was an INSTANT response despite it being a weekend?," Zitron said, referring to the Taylor Swift Apple Music situation. "Same thing here."
"Do you think McDonald's just made like, 1000 of them [sauce packets] and then went welp that's it. Delete the packaging folks!" Zitron said. "Of course not. They knew it'd get some people mad. They probably didn't predict riots but definitely knew people would be enraged. That image response was likely pre-drafted and ready to post."