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Daily Drip

Not Lovin’ It: McDonald’s Draws Nationalist Ire, While KFC Does Chinese New Year with TFBoys

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Two things stand out about American fast food chains in China: first, the menu. Brands are not afraid to experiment and incorporate local flavors, paving the way for unique creations like black sesame ice cream, Peking duck pizza, and most recently the bao-pizza hybrid. We did a whole photo series on the parallel universe of American fast food in the mainland.

Second, the ads. As companies compete for relevance in a saturated (yes, that was a pun) market, the ads that attract attention are the ones littered with big names and special effects.

Well, usually. Sometimes all it takes is a subtle hint at Taiwanese independence for a classic Egg McMuffin to get its time in the spotlight.

Appearing on YouTube December 6 and withdrawn December 18, a recent McDonald’s Taiwan ad shows a student dropping her college entrance exam admission ticket on the street where it is muddied and then, by a stroke of good luck, immediately washed and dried off by passing vehicles. Once the muck clears, the camera zooms in on the document to reveal that her nationality is – cue the dramatic music – “Taiwan.”

Of course, McDonald’s Taiwan wasn’t planning on that two-second shot causing so much controversy. According to Focus Taiwan, the ad was meant to wish students well as they prepare for the dreaded college entrance exam, with “Egg McMuffin” pronounced similarly to “full of good luck” in Mandarin (滿福堡 manfubao). But given the publicity nightmare the breakfast sandwich has found itself in, the name is more ironic than anything.

On its official Weibo page, McDonald’s China apologized on behalf of the advertising company and reaffirmed its political beliefs. (The post has since been removed.)

“We regret that the advertisement company did not pay close attention to the video’s background and caused misunderstanding,” McDonald’s China said. “We have always adhered to the ‘One China’ stance and firmly support China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Whether you find the video controversial or not, this would be a good time to point out that McDonald’s Taiwan and McDonald’s China are actually two different companies. The mainland McDonald’s is owned by CITIC Capital Holdings Ltd. and the US-based private equity firm The Carlyle Group. Across the Strait, Deyu Co., a restaurant chain operator, acquired McDonald’s assets in 2017.

But some netizens didn’t let this distinction stop them from declaring social media war. Nationalists accused the Golden Arches of supporting independence for the island, taking offense at the reference to Taiwan as a nationality (国籍) instead of a province (省).

Taiwan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs joined the fight, tweeting:

Some netizens threatened to take their business to a different finger lickin’ good fast food franchise: KFC.

Maybe Ronald could learn a thing or two from Colonel Sanders. The fried chicken joint – the first American fast food chain to launch in China – was recently trending on Weibo, thanks to their Lunar New Year-themed ad featuring Roy Wang, member of the hit boy band TFBoys. Released January 17, the video has been viewed 9.7 million times on the 18-year-old’s Weibo account and shared more than 1.5 million times.

So when it comes to advertising do’s or don’ts for the touchy mainland China market, the rules are simple: Do use famous faces – the younger looking, the better (remember when K-Pop star Luhan was the new colonel?). Don’t mix politics with food, unless you’re prepared for the greasy backlash.

Julienna Law
    Julienna Law is a recent graduate of the University of Southern California. In her free time, she likes designing graphics, studying Chinese, and listening to the seven loves of her life, K-pop group BTS.