Brand Purpose McDonald's Marketing

Is McDonald’s product-less promo a way around future fast-food ad bans?


By Jon Evans, Chief marketing officer

January 18, 2023 | 7 min read

Everyone’s talking about the new (almost) unbranded ad by McDonald’s, directed by Edgar Wright. Jon Evans of ad performance analyst System1 looks at what all the fuss is about.


McDonald’s eyebrow-raising new ad is a cracker and the results of a public test prove how well it uses the brand’s distinctive assets. But it isn’t just a great ad – it shows a way forward for marketers in an era of higher regulation on junk food marketing.

The Leo Burnett ad launched this week and has sparked plenty of chat for both its quality and the risks it takes. If you’ve not seen it yet, the ad features an office where two hungry workers decide to pop out for a McDonald’s – communicated by a post-it note and a double eyebrow raise. The raised eyebrows turn out to be a universal sign for ’Fancy a McDonald’s?’ and before long the whole office is heading out for a burger.

But we don’t see the burgers or the restaurants and before the closing shot we don’t even see the word McDonald’s. It’s as close to an unbranded ad as you can imagine a big brand making.

How good is it, though? Well, let’s watch it again first.

One fundamental law of marketing is we’re not as good as we think we are at judging ads. It’s always worth seeing what the paying public feels about a piece of work. And, in this case, whether they even realize who it’s for.

So, we ran the McDonald’s ad through the System1 Test Your Ad platform and here’s what we found.

This McDonald’s ad with no burgers and no restaurants could have baffled the audience, but they got the point with no problem. The subtle branding made zero difference to brand recognition. Within 10 seconds, almost 80% of people knew the ad was for McDonald’s and the only evidence they had was a post-it note with an M.

That’s the power of McDonald’s branding. The brand’s top-class distinctive assets – in this case just the shape of the logo – give it permission to be subtle and playful in an ad like this. The better your distinctive assets, the more subtle you can be and the more you can play.

That’s good news for creatives, who always want a wider, less restrictive canvas to work their magic in. But look at the bigger picture and you’ll see why this ad might be really important for McDonald’s and the whole fast-food category.

It’s no secret that junk food is in the sights of regulators. The government has made its plans to regulate ads for products high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) very clear. While changes of leader have pushed these plans lower down the government to-do list, there’s still a commitment to see them through and it’s unlikely an incoming Labour administration would see matters differently. Both parties are convinced that part of the key to dealing with Britain’s obesity epidemic is a crackdown on marketing.

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In such a crackdown, the traditional McDonald’s ad would be under severe scrutiny. No more tempting shots of fries and nuggets. But what about an advert like this new ’Eyebrows’ one? There are no product shots and only a brief mention of the brand. There are no families with kids either. While it’s for McDonald’s, it’s very hard to argue that this ad is directly promoting junk food or encouraging unhealthy choices.

I doubt the potential of ’Eyebrows’ to comply with a ban was top of mind for anyone involved in making it. However, it shows the flexibility strong brands have in communicating without relying on their product when they can use a distinctive asset – like the M symbol, or golden arches – as a substitute. If the asset is strong enough, the unspoken message will certainly get across.

We don’t know yet what any potential regulation will look like for food and drink advertising and it’s easy to imagine blanket bans covering any ads for fast-food brands in the way that all tobacco advertising is now banned. But if regulators do make a distinction between the product and the brand, an ad like ’Eyebrows’ is very well placed to build McDonald’s brand while keeping its unhealthy aspects firmly offscreen.

Jon Evans is chief growth officer at System1 and host of the Uncensored CMO podcast.

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