In the U.S., McDonald’s latest ad campaign involves mocking wimps who turn to trendy foods like quinoa, kale, and Greek yogurt when they could be chowing down on a double-decker hamburger from McDonald’s.
As culture war advertising goes, it’s pretty on point—the overlap between people who are considering getting a Big Mac and people who use kale and Greek yogurt as a base for their smoothies is probably not all that significant. McDonald’s can presumably afford to alienate the quinoa-eaters if it reassures their core market that they can eat their Big Macs with pride rather than shame. The emotions that accompany food are weird, but powerful!
But the company miscalculated when marketing its McBurritos in Mexico: there, in place of the quinoa and kale, they targeted tamales.
In an ad that McDonald’s Mexico ran on Facebook, the company declared that “Tamales are a thing of the past,” and reminded readers that “McBurrito Mexicana also comes wrapped.” And the backlash was swift. On social media, users mocked everything from McDonald’s food to the music they play in their stores. Shortly thereafter, the company issued an apology:
In response to the avalanche of criticism, McDonald’s swiftly withdrew the ad and posted an apology to its Facebook page.
“McDonald’s respects the traditions and beliefs of all the countries in which we have had the opportunity to work,” it says in Spanish.
A further statement, in English, says: “It was never our intention to offend, and we apologize.
“We are proud to celebrate Mexican traditions and cuisine in our restaurants. Our menu includes local specialities, such as McMolletes, Mexican Ranchero eggs, and churros pastries, as well as traditional Mexican salsas to condiment all our burgers.
“This year we will celebrate 30 years in Mexico, and are grateful to be a part of the lives of thousands of families who choose us every day.”
Mostly, this is just an example of tone-deaf advertising that demonstrates how campaigns don’t translate internationally. Mocking the culinary choices of American foodies who may have just discovered quinoa and kale in recent years in order to remind the Big Mac lovers out there that eating food that’s bad for you can taste pretty good makes sense. But going to Mexico to declare that people should give up their tamales in favor of a McBurrito smacks of the sort of cultural imperialism for which McDonald’s is frequently the poster company. Quinoa in California is a niche product; tamales in Mexico are part of the cultural identity. It’d be a lot like an ad campaign from a massive multinational corporation that came into Texas and declared that BBQ was done, time to move on to tofu.
Or, for that matter, a campaign that argued to Texans that tamales were a thing of the past—after all, it’s not like we haven’t got a strong tradition for tamales on this side of the border either. As Katharyn Rodemann wrote in Texas Monthly in 2011:
Before there was a Texas, there were tamales. We know this instinctually, because there’s something ancient about just eating one: to peel back the coarse corn husk and gaze upon the steaming bundle of golden, meat-filled masa inside—simple, nutritive sustenance—is like unwrapping a gift from centuries past. Indeed, tamales trace their roots to pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, where peoples such as the Aztec and Maya stuffed mounds of ground maize with berries, bugs, and iguana, then cooked them in corn husks or leaves. Around 1520, the Spaniards arrived and, as was their wont, mixed things up: They introduced pigs and cattle, and thus new tamal fillings. What they didn’t change, though, was the essential role of tamales as communal, celebratory fare. Back then, tamales were the ultimate party food, and as any Texan who has taken a bite of steaming, pork-stuffed masa at a wedding, baptism, or holiday get-together knows, we are the fortunate heirs of this tradition.
The power of the tamale should not be questioned, in other words. That’s true in Mexico, of course, but also in Texas, and at Christmases and other celebrations around the state and the country. McDonald’s may be one of the largest restaurant chains in the world, but even they don’t want to mess with Big Tamale.