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How McDonald’s successfully turned us all into brand ambassadors: The Grimace Shake pushes the limits of branded virality

Sure, now we know the McDonald’s mascot is a taste bud … but at what cost?


Lon Harris

Internet Culture

Posted on Jul 6, 2023   Updated on Jul 26, 2023, 5:27 pm CDT


In the early 2000s, virality concentrated on one or two breakout apps — like Facebook and Myspace. Now, things are more compartmentalized and niche. Tens of millions of Gen Zers might blow up a video on TikTok. At the same time, those topics remain a complete mystery to their Twitter and Facebook obsessive aunts and uncles. The internet has grown large enough that everyone has a little corner (or bubble) to hang out in, where they can fixate on whatever they please.

Still, every rare once in a while, a trend gains so much momentum it achieves the platform version of escape velocity and genuinely enters mainstream pop culture. So if you’re 40 or above, this might be the first time you hear about the Grimace Shake, but it won’t be the last. For any younger readers, it’s old news.

Recall Grimace, the friendly, purple McDonald’s mascot first introduced in 1971 who, you may be surprised to learn, is actually supposed to be a sentient taste bud. All of summer 2023, the fast food chain commemorates the character’s 52nd birthday. He took over the McDonald’s social media accounts. He is featured in a variety of newly-introduced McDonald’s merch. And, of course, he got his own meal, which comes with a choice of Big Mac or chicken nuggets, a medium side of fries, and a purple berry-flavored shake: The Grimace Shake.

On TikTok, the shake inspired creators to post videos parodying horror films, in which they enjoy a Grimace Shake, followed by the eerie, inexplicable, or even downright terrifying results. These include gruesome death, developing supernatural abilities, off-screen massacres, and other devastating consequences typically reserved for Blumhouse horror movies.

While this might seem on the surface like an organic explosion in attention (and to some degree it was), there’s a lot creators can learn from the Grimace Shake. It’s a lesson in how brands manufacture virality and why McDonald’s successfully turned us all into brand ambassadors.

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*First Published: Jul 6, 2023, 11:30 am CDT