NEW YORK -- An ad by McDonald's (MCD) is testing the fine line companies need to walk when referencing national tragedies.
The ad by the world's biggest hamburger chain that aired during the NFL playoffs and Golden Globes on Sunday featured a montage of signs outside McDonald's restaurants, including messages of support after devastating events.
Among them were "We Remember 9 11" and "Boston Strong," a reference to the bombing at a marathon that killed three people. Other messages thanked veterans, or were more personal and wished individuals in the community a happy birthday.
The ad was set to a children's choir singing a version of "Carry On" by the rock band Fun.
The commercial provoked strong reactions, with some saying they were moved by it and others saying it's tacky for a company to use tragic events to burnish its image. The ad is part of a new campaign by McDonald's to highlight the "loving" in its "I'm Lovin' It" slogan and associate its name with that positive emotion.
Deborah Wahl, chief marketing officer for McDonald's USA, said the ad was intended to reflect the company's history in communities, through good times and bad. Leaving out the bad moments would've been dishonest, she said.
She noted that McDonald's gets a lot of attention no matter what it does because of its size, although the level of attention for the latest ad was surprising.
"Did we expect all this? No," she said in a phone interview.
She said it was too early to tell whether the ad was a success, but that the company is trying to engage more with customers and that "good advertising creates emotion."
Laura Ries, president of Ries & Ries, a branding consulting firm, said the ad hit a nerve in part because it was unusual for McDonald's, which typically features shots of its food.
She thought the intention was to celebrate the company's history in communities, and that it was effective because it did so by using the "iconic imagery" of the Golden Arches.
"It's something that everyone has seen on the roads growing up," Ries said.
Not everyone was moved, however. The Washington Post's Wonkblog referred to it as "tone deaf" and a "disarming minute of mushy corporate propaganda." For others, the reference to the Sept. 11 attacks and Boston Marathon bombing in a McDonald's ad were jarring, and some commenters on Facebook and Twitter called it crass and exploitive.
Other companies have faced even sharper backlash for trying to incorporate national tragedies into their marketing. In 2013, for instance, AT&T (T) was criticized for an ad that feted New York's recovery after the Sept. 11 attacks while showing off its new smartphones. Campbell Soup (CPB) also apologized that year for a tweet by SpaghettiOs asking followers to "Take a moment and remember #PearlHarbor with us." The tweet featured an image of its smiling cartoon mascot jauntily holding an American flag.
During an investor meeting last month, McDonald's USA President Mike Andres noted the company is working with franchisees to strengthen their ties in communities. The majority of the company's more than 14,000 U.S. restaurants are operated by franchisees.
"More than ever, people want to feel good about the businesses and the brands they do businesses with," he said.
During that same meeting, Andres and CEO Don Thompson highlighted the various ways McDonald's is working to re-energize its business in the U.S., where it has struggled to lift sales for about two years. The meeting came after the company reported a 4.6 percent decline in sales at established locations for November.