With a vibrant purple hue, a meme-able mascot and limited window of availability, McDonald's had all the ingredients to turn its Grimace milkshake into a viral sensation.
What the company likely did not intend was for the shake's success to come from TikTok users playing dead.
Since the debut of the Grimace shake earlier this month, TikTok users have been excitedly ordering the shake, released in honor of McDonald's character Grimace's "birthday," and then pretending to die on camera after consuming the purple beverage. They often dump the shake over their convulsing bodies, apparently signaling that Grimace, that bumbling bestie of Ronald McDonald, killed them.
McDonald's was probably hoping for viral success, though perhaps not by way of disturbing faux-deaths. The TikTok videos have been viewed millions of times this month, drawing eyes to McDonald's latest culinary gambit - even if users are abruptly throwing it up afterwards.
"What may seem like negative expression is actually a positive reflection of their ability to connect with a generation," said Matthew Prince, an adjunct professor of social media and influencer marketing at Chapman University in California. "It's getting the views, it's getting the laughs and, as the viral trend grows, it's getting the sales."
The purple shake is the latest attempt at viral food
McDonald's made the Grimace shake available beginning on June 12, which is apparently Grimace's birthday. (Reports indicate that Grimace is 52 years old.) Grimace himself announced the treat in a takeover of the company's social media accounts.
The rollout seemed in line with other recent McDonald's marketing schemes to build cultural credibility and capitalize on virality. The eatery has collaborated with musicians like J Balvin and Travis Scott on celebrity-approved meals and even teamed up with buzzy streetwear brand Cactus Plant Flea Market to release exclusive collectible Happy Meal toys for adults, including a mold of everyone's favorite purple blob.
Even before collectors were reselling the limited-edition designer toys, McDonald's has played with scarcity and limited availability: Its Shamrock Shake and McRib are often only available for a few weeks each year, if that, and they've become cult menu favorites.
The Grimace shake, though, has become more infamous than beloved. In a typical "Grimace Shake" TikTok, an enthusiastic young person, Grimace shake in hand, will wish the big purple mascot a happy birthday before taking their first sip. Cut to: The TikTok-er, in the throes of death, splayed in a puddle of purple liquid. Sometimes they're playing dead in an abandoned building or a dark street or draped over a McDonald's sign. Sometimes they even appear to vomit purple before "succumbing" to death by shake.
Grimace has a history of villainy
Grimace wasn't always a happy-go-lucky amorphous creature. When he was first introduced in the 1970s, commercials referred to him as the "evil Grimace," a four-armed purple blob who used his many limbs to abscond with cups of milkshakes, according to Food & Wine. Even in those commercials, though, the bumbling thief never attempted to poison or murder anyone who got in his way.
When ad execs realized that Grimace was frightening young potential consumers, they softened the character, dropping the "evil" from descriptors and lopping off one of his sets of arms. Soon, benevolent Grimace was just a triangular lump in Ronald McDonald's gang of fast food lovers, and the villainous Hamburglar filled Grimace's former role.
McDonald's still isn't certain exactly what Grimace is, though. In 2014, the company's corporate Twitter account told a fan that, per the character's lore, "he is the embodiment of a milkshake or a taste bud."
The ambiguity surrounding Grimace, as well as his villainous past, seem to have made him a suitable template for meme-making.
How the Grimace shake gambit paid off
By offering a novel menu item in a photo-friendly purple hue and tagging it to an infamous character, McDonald's had a menu item designed to draw wild reactions. "Frankenfoods" - that is, weird, limited-edition foods that stretch the definition of "edible" - are often successful for fast food joints, CNN reported in 2018, citing Taco Bell's Doritos Locos Tacos (tacos in a Dorito-flavored hard shell) and Burger King's Whopperito (a burger wrapped in a tortilla) as two popular food mash-ups that generated buzz and attention from consumers.
While the Grimace shake is tamer than those offerings - it's a berry-flavored milkshake, so it's more akin to Heinz's green ketchup than a nauseating mustard-flavored ice cream - it's still a gambit. It seems to have worked - the hashtags #grimaceshake and #grimace had amassed nearly 640 million views and more than 750 million views, respectively, by Wednesday afternoon on TikTok.
Its unconventional success is fitting for an unconventional product. Prince, the Chapman University professor, told CNN that "what seems like weird viral ploys to some is just good brand engagement reflective of a young generation." The Grimace shake speaks, somehow, to Gen Z's humor and cultural interests, he said.
When reached for comment, McDonald's referred CNN to a tweet from Grimace: "meee pretending i don't see the grimace shake trendd," along with a photo of the purple one himself, eyebrows raised.
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