McDonald’s Portugal recently made headlines after a Halloween campaign backfired. In an attempt to celebrate the spooky season, the fast-food giant’s Portuguese branch released a special Halloween edition of its ice cream Sundae.
To advertise their strawberry-flavored ice cream special, McDonald’s Portugal used the slogan “Sundae Bloody Sundae.” What, according to McDonald’s, was meant as a well-intended tribute to the song “Sunday Bloody Sunday” by Irish rock band U2, and a celebration of Halloween (incidentally a holiday of Celtic origin), was perceived as insensitive on the Emerald Isle.
The term “Bloody Sunday” makes reference to three bloody events that took place throughout Irish history.
The first Bloody Sunday happened on Sunday, August 31, 1913, during the Dublin lock-out, the largest industrial dispute in Irish history. As crowds gathered to protest in the streets of Dublin, several hundred people were injured after police charged them with batons.
The second Bloody Sunday took place during the War of Independence in 1920. First, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) assassinated a group of British intelligence agents. Then, later that same day, the British retaliated by opening fire on a crowd of civilians watching a Gaelic football match, killing 14 people.
The third and most well-known Bloody Sunday happened on January 30, 1972. At this time, the Republic of Ireland had already been independent from Great Britain for more than 50 years but the so-called “Troubles” (also known as the Northern Ireland Conflict) were in full swing. During a peaceful protest march in Derry/Londonderry, British soldiers started shooting into the Irish Catholic crowd, killing 14 unarmed civilians. It is also known as the Bogside Massacre and was one of the most significant events of the Northern Ireland Conflict.
U2 is one of the most well-known international rock bands. Their song “Sunday Bloody Sunday” reflects on the Bloody Sunday massacre from 1972, as one of the darkest times of the Troubles. However, for the ones not as savvy in Irish history, the reference to the historic event might not be immediately apparent from the lyrics. While frontman Bono sings of a battle, for those not in the know it could potentially be perceived as more generic anti-war song:
Broken bottles under children’s feet
Bodies strewn across the dead end street
But I won’t heed the battle call
It puts my back up
Puts my back up against the wall
And the battle’s just begun
There’s many lost, but tell me who has won
The trench is dug within our hearts
And mothers, children, brothers, sisters torn apart
Moreover, many people might not even listen as closely to the lyrics and just know the title.
While McDonald’s Portugal merely saw an opportunity for a funny wordplay, a seasonal dessert, and a tribute to U2, Irish people around the globe were not lovin’ it. The campaign sparked outrage on social media, with Irish users tweeting pictures and comments like “Portugal is canceled” and “Ignorance is the new cool.”
The Bloody Sundae incident is a good example of how easy it is for enterprises to fall into the pop-culture trap, which is when companies use a well-known pop-culture reference to launch a new product or campaign without fully understanding what deeper meaning might lie behind it.
A similar incident happened in 2006 when US ice cream giant Ben & Jerry’s launched a new flavor called “Black & Tan” – cream stout with a whirl of chocolate. While Ben & Jerry’s stated that the name was based on a drink made with Stout and Pale Ale, Irish customers were quick to point out that the name has far more gruesome connotations.
The Black and Tans were a British paramilitary group during the Irish War of Independence. They were known for their brutality and attacks on civilians.
While both Ben & Jerry’s and McDonald’s apologized to Irish consumers and quickly withdrew their campaigns, incidents like these can be a real blow to a company’s reputation.
Both the “Sundae Bloody Sundae” and the “Black and Tan” campaign are classic examples of how quickly names of campaigns or products can backfire if references are only viewed through a single cultural lens. A US or global enterprise and their local subsidiaries might see no reason why there should be anything more to the wordplay than a reference to a well-known drink or to a U2 song. They may not understand the deep historical or cultural connotations or associations around those words and ideas.
The geocultural landscape can be hard to navigate. Even – or maybe especially – for large enterprises.
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