Grimace & His Shake

Hello, I am once again coming to you with many thoughts about McDonald’s and their use of the McDonaldland characters, more specifically Grimace & his Birthday Shake.

After previously going down the dark hole of researching the McDonald’s characters used in their McDonaldland Campaign, it was abundantly clear that despite being one of the most recognisable brands in the world, the McDonald’s Marketing Team are some of the laziest creatives in town. From the uninspired character names of Iam Hungry and Sundae the Dog, to the fact that they copy and pasted a number of their characters’ likeness from the very identifiable children’s TV show H.R. Pufnstuf, to recruiting future President Donald Trump to star in an ad for unknown reasons, and now the Grimace Birthday Shake; McDonald’s enjoy taking the path most travelled.

I am in no way condemning their marketing choices as being bad, the Grimace Shake meme has resulted in a viral sensation with Forbes reporting that on TikTok alone videos using the #grimace and #grimaceshake hashtags have over 745 million and 632 million views combined, and McDonald’s sales are rumoured to have increased.

It is easy to see why McDonald’s chose to bet on a viral food promotion. In 2018 CNN reported on the then rising trend of what they dubbed ‘Frankenfood’ in fast food franchises that saw brands create monstrous menu items by combining their greatest hits with novelty or wacky flavours and colours, or surprising combos. These gimmicky food items, often sold for a limited time, brought fast food companies viral and word-of-mouth marketing and brand recognition, boosting sales and interest. Any company watching the hype around the revival of KFC’s Double Down Chicken Sandwich that replaces bread in the sandwich with two extra pieces of chicken, or the online reach the controversial ‘Pink Sauce’ amassed before even being released, and more recently the sheer amount of user-generated content from the Sony x Burger King Whopper they inexplicably died red to promote the Spider-Verse movie, could surely be moved to release their own Frankenfood product in the hope of a viral sensation. In saying that, I do not believe McDonald’s planned on this particular reaction to their viral sensation shake, nor would they ideally do so with it taking a cheeky, yet slightly negative, spin on the product.

God help the stomach’s of anyone who chooses to consume all four of these abominations…

Since the release of the Grimace Shake, which can only be purchased as part of Grimace’s Birthday Meal alongside a Big Mac or nuggets, and fries, people on the internet have filmed themselves happily taking a sip of this suspiciously purple shake, noting its berry flavour and that they felt fine, and then *jokingly* cutting to scenes of them having a horrific response to the shake. The joke stems from how creatively and spookily they can pretend to show themselves being taken over by the Grimace Shake from throwing up, to turning purple, passing out, and even becoming or being haunted by Grimace himself, the gist is to try and give A24 a run for their money. The virality of this peak online humour, can only be commended with celebrities even being tempted by Grimace’s purple power with the likes of Courtney Cox, Fall Out Boy, and even Sonic the Hedgehog losing themselves to the shake of the season. The fact that their marketing team are aware of the chaos this product has let loose makes it even more enjoyable:

Alongside the easy bet on viral food marketing this year, McDonald’s have also always understood the power of promotional products, nostalgia and limited-time-only offers with the Grimace Shake ticking all three boxes but again, in the laziest way possible, recycling and piggybacking off previous ideas and successes.

Releasing Creme Egg McFlurries for a limited time only is criminal.

Starting with the most obvious, the limited time-only offer has always been a staple in the McDonald’s marketing toolbelt, so it is no surprise they are pumping the pressure of needing to grab a Grimace Shake before it is gone. Seasonal products usually sell well, limited time offers create demand, and McDonald’s has seen great success with cult favourites such as the Crème Egg McFlurry, Spicy McNuggets, and the McRib whose cult status led it to star as the subject of parody in a Simpsons episode, but there is no more relevant ‘limited time only’ product of McDonald’s than the illustrious and the sickly green, Shamrock Shake.

This abomination was cooked up in Chicago, the same town that turns its river green to celebrate St Patrick’s Day, by fast food marketing giants Rogers Merchandising in 1970, who were hired to assist with the selection and promotion of toys through the McDonald’s Happy Meals. The recipe that was originally much more detailed than the Shamrock Shake we think of today, was based on a family recipe from employee James Byrne that had a balance of vanilla, lime, and lemon syrups, with a vanilla ice cream base and a lemon-lime sherbet. Obviously, that became an absolute nightmare for quality control across the country, resulting in the Shamrock Shake being a green-dyed vanilla shake that was sold in March to celebrate St Patty’s Day, which was once again revived in 1983 to become the toothpastesque flavour we have all grown accustomed to over the past 30 years.

One of the reasons I note the laziness surrounding the Grimace Shake promotion is the fact that the Shamrock Shake was heavily promoted by our said purple pal, but also by his suspicious Irish Uncle O’Grimacey. See, McDonald’s had a perfectly good opportunity to create a relevant character to market the Shamrock Shake, and yet they went ahead and slapped a green coat of paint and a slightly xenophobic outfit and accent onto everyone’s favourite lump Grimace, and claimed it was his Irish Uncle (despite the fact that Maccas lore has all of Grimace’s family coming from Grimace Island, not Ireland – so many plot holes). Macca’s wanted us to believe that despite living in Ireland, Uncle O’Grimacey chose to leave his beloved home to bring his blobbish purple nephew a mint milkshake to celebrate his favourite day of the year, which again is just a bunch of poorly thought out lazy nonsense, but back to the Birthday Shake. Grimace has always been associated with milkshakes at McDonald’s, and the Grimace Shake is barely a creative stretch from the Shamrock Shake, and that is being generous. They are both bright, unnatural and what should be unappealing colours; they both have ambiguous flavours, that I do not believe people actually hold any desire for outside of nostalgia; they have both been promoted by the Grimace family, which leads me to believe that someone really did just sit in a meeting and say ‘why didn’t Grimace have his own flavoured milkshake but his creepy Irish Uncle got one?’; and they have both been limited time only products that have sparked demand despite definitely not tasting better than a chocolate shake.

Shamrock Shakes claim to be a ‘beautiful green’, without stopping to think whether we should be drinking any milk that even has a hint of green in it…

Of course, McDonald’s also goes buck-wild for promotional products, just look at the Happy Meal. There isn’t a children’s movie that Maccas hasn’t got its sticky little hands on in toy-form to help promote what I can only assume is increased sales for them, and only them, at this point in the era of streaming. If kids liked it, Maccas had it slapped on a Happy Meal box that held within in it a cheap and nasty mini plastic game, collectable or action figure that barely resembled the movie. Originally, Happy Meals began with promoting their own internal items like the Nugget Buddies, but of course became effortlessly more popular when promoting everything from Barbie to Hot Wheels, Batman to Space Jam, Beanie Babies and Furbies, SpongeBob and Minions, and every Disney movie character in between. If the toy ensured kids would winge until their parents went through the drive through on a Friday night when they couldn’t be bothered to slap up another meal, or after sport on the weekend to celebrate their child being named MVP with a free chippies voucher, or even to console the sore losers to aid in the reduction of tantrums on the way home, Maccas had it.

Who wouldn’t riot for a lil Grimace?

But it also went further than toys, it was the promotional menu items that spiked sales and tended to leave a lasting legacy, like the Mulan Movie Szechuan Dipping Sauce. Created to promote the release of Disney’s Mulan movie, Maccas released a limited edition dipping sauce that many have dreamed about since. This insatiable quench for a 25-year-old sauce grew even greater in 2017 after the opening episode of season 3 of the pop culture phenomenon Rick and Morty, saw the duo go on an epic adventure in the hopes of tasting the limited edition Szechuan Sauce one more time.

They got rid of it, and now its gone.

Like the Szechuan Sauce, the Grimace Shake is a promotional item that Maccas have made big bets on, though this may not be your greatest takeaway when watching the viral memes and videos. The Grimace Shake, along with merch, a game, and the meal, was released to celebrate Grimace’s 52nd Birthday. With 52 not necessarily being a milestone birthday, it wouldn’t surprise me if poor Grimace had to wait a few years with Covid to celebrate his half-century a bit later than planned, but this lazy use of a promotional product leads me on to my final point of why Grimace and his shake are a lazy, yet effective, marketing tactic used by McDonald’s – it relies heavily, and effectively, on nostalgia.

Nostalgia is an incredibly powerful social emotion that studies have found can help promote a sense of self and personal growth, can boost mood, strengthen bonds with family and friends and make you more optimistic. It might be lazy, but it makes a target much easier to hit. Despite all of the original McDonaldland characters being retired due to copyright infringement, irrelevance, or just being absolutely bonkers to use to advertise to kids, Maccas have noticed the yearn for the good old days that drives many of their looming middle-aged consumers. From McDonaldland character pyjamas at Peter Alexander that sold like Maccas Hotcakes, to their 2022 adult only Happy Meal in collaboration with streetwear brand Cactus Flea Market, you don’t have to be a marketing genius to know that you can capitalise on the fact that many adults wish for simpler days of Happy Meals and being left to their own devices in the Maccas PlayPen (nay, PlayPlace – we do not lock our children in pens anymore).

The photos of Maccas parties always seemed a lot grimmer than the advertisements.

Having already had a homerun with the hit nostalgic adult Happy Meal, McDonald’s came to play knowing they had one final whack of nostalgia that would blow away the cobwebs in anyone’s mind to remind them of a simpler time, and that is the McDonald’s Birthday Party. Their party pitch to tired parents was to make kid’s parties easier by taking care of the catering, cake, games, and venue, and of course a place that handed out toys and had an inbuilt playground was not a hard sell. This is my favourite part about the Grimace Birthday Special; the entire press announcement surrounding the Grimace Shake and Meal was written as a birthday invitation which was reminiscent of a McDonald’s Party including:

  • Catering: the beloved catering of your favourite Maccas menu items, which were always the staple of a Maccas Party, will be the focus of their promotion as part of the ‘Grimace Birthday Meal’. Potentially it is a way to try to sling more of their classic menu staples and boost sales in a market flooded with edible options that can be delivered to your door.
  • Dessert: an exclusive item that you could not get outside of a birthday party, with Grimace’s Shake, in lieu of the famous birthday ice cream cake, only being available to purchase with the meal and not on its own.
  • Games: gone is Pin the Nose on Ronald McDonald and colouring-in sheets of the McDonaldland gang, instead for Grimace’s birthday you can play online as Grimace skating to rally not only his friends, but also Grimace Shakes, before his big party. The game leans heavily on 00’s nostalgia with dodgy looking ads and clickbait around the edges, minimal pixels and a Mario World style play – with games like these, who wouldn’t want to party with Grimace? Of course the entirety of the game has you looking at, thinking about, and chasing after McDonald’s shakes which I know has an effect on the psyche. Whether you believe you can or cannot be manipulated to purchase a McDonald’s shake by playing a game, you can find out here.
  • Party Outfit: the press release makes a few suggestions on what you could wear to said birthday, all of it being limited edition Grimace merch you can purchase, if you are in America. I am personally a huge fan of the Grimace Pool Float and believe it would be a big hit at any party, no matter your age, again leaning into nostalgia and enticing you with these limited edition items that would make your millennial friends jealous, if only for a brief moment.
  • Gifts: the nicest touch on the press release is of course in lieu of gifts, Grimace would like to encourage his friends to donate to the Ronald McDonald House Charity, which is honestly Ronald’s only saving grace considering he is the face of obesity, littering, and a very scary looking clown. On a certain date, if fans shared their pictures of their own parties at McDonald’s, there was a claim that McDonald’s would ‘donate $5 for each picture shared up until $200,0000’ to the Ronald McDonald Charity House. A nice way to pray on people’s nostalgia and goodwill to accumulate some user-generated content and do some polling research on how people feel about Maccas parties.

So yes, between making the Grimace Shake a nostalgic, limited time only, promotional product, to celebrate the only McDonaldland character any of us ever really cared about (because let’s be honest, no one has strong feelings about Mayor McCheese or Birdie) it is evident that McDonald’s may of taken a lazy advertising strategy that was basically a mashup of previous ideas with a touch more purple, yet in the era of social media and despair it has awarded them great success.

You can read Grimace’s Birthday full press release here, which I have already done numerous times because honestly, I’m loving it. So despite the fact that here in Australia we were not thought of highly enough to be invited to Grimace’s 52nd Birthday, and therefore need to makedo with the birthday cake flavoured lattes that have popped up at a number of participating locations with absolutely no context whatsoever, I will wait here patiently until I too can join in the party with Grimace.

I partied at McDonald’s, and somehow survived, so I can do so again.

– Courtie