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Seamus McKiernan Headshot

Did McDonald's Cross the Line in Tweet About Ohio Kidnapping Case?

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By now you've probably heard of Charles Ramsey, the garrulous and courageous neighbor who helped rescue three abducted women in Cleveland on Monday. Amid a tragic and disturbing story, Ramsey has been a bright light. His news interviews have gone viral, in equal part for the harrowing rescue story he tells as for the seemingly superfluous (and at times entertaining) details he includes in his reports. For instance, you probably also now know that Ramsey went to McDonald's before the rescue, a fact he mentions numerous times in separate interviews with reporters and even in his 911 call from the scene. McDonald's certainly noticed. Its corporate account (@McDonaldsCorp) tweeted this message about the Cleveland abduction case:

Nothing much to look at here, right? Just a company recognizing the courage of the kidnap victims, and praising a local hero who also happens to be its customer. Actually, on first read, the tweet comes across as well-intentioned. Behind this Twitter account are real people expressing what seems to be genuine emotion. I can even see how people might retweet it (and at the time of this posting more than 8k people have).

And maybe we should leave the story about McDonald's there. Analyzing a tweet feels slight compared to the weight of this story. But the more I reread the tweet, the more it bothers me.

What's at issue is not the sentiment the tweet expresses, but the fact that McDonald's is the one expressing it. Who doesn't agree that the victims deserve privacy, and the hero praise? But in the immediate wake of the disturbing story of kidnapping and abuse, why would McDonald's tweet about the story at all?

Let's look at the tweet. The first sentence is, "We salute the courage of Ohio kidnap victims & respect their privacy." This doesn't raise any flags. For better or worse, it's become common for corporations to comment on news stories, particularly tragedies, via their social media accounts. McDonald's in this regard is no different from other organizations and people who tweeted about the story. But what caught my eye was the second part of the tweet: "Way to go Charles Ramsey- we'll be in touch." Suddenly, I wondered how much the first part of the tweet existed to usher in the second.

The truth is, Ramsey is a hero. If I saw him on the street I'd probably consider walking up to him and telling him that, shaking his hand, maybe getting a picture. But when does a corporation's tweet cross the line from everyday news commentary to advertisement?

Even when you account for what might be noble intentions on the part of McDonald's, the tweet still doubles as an ad. What should make us uncomfortable is the backdrop for the ad: a neighbor, refusing to be called a hero, who casually mentions a fast food chain in his description of a rescue of kidnapped women. McDonald's has nothing to do with the events of this story -- except that they were mentioned by the rescuer in service of explaining his whereabouts and how he came upon the victims. McDonald's didn't have a material role in freeing the women or in motivating Ramsey's noble behavior. He could've just as well said he was coming from Macy's, or KFC. It's not as though, to employ a hypothetical, Ramsey name-dropped a particular brand of eyeglasses that helped him better identify the victim from a long distance away.

It seems to me that McDonald's is praising Ramsey as much for his good deed as for his mention of the brand. Unwittingly, Ramsey may have become a guerilla advertiser for the fast food giant and by praising him, McDonald's seems content to piggyback on his sensation.Like the most effective advertising, what's not being said comes through loud and clear: we especially like when heroes give us some free advertising.

Maybe I'm misreading this. It's just a tweet, after all. Just a miniature press release, not unlike the myriad others we are bombarded with on a daily basis in America -- an ad at the bus stop, a radio commercial in the background of a store, or a sponsored pro basketball game. But we should acknowledge that the McDonald's tweet is inappropriate at best and, at worst, it capitalizes on the sensation of a tragic story.

Social media rewards users -- corporations included -- for being speedy responders to a fast moving news cycle. That's how you get attention. That's how you get followers. So, are we actually all that surprised by McDonald's' tweet? Americans are the savviest consumers in the world. Most corporations are in the business of advertising. They sell to us. Constantly. It's what they do. Maybe the real controversy is that we sit back and let them.