McDonald’s transparency over burger photo shoot raises questions

Transparency is a good thing, right? But what if that transparency is about how you “doctor” photos to make your products look better than they really are?

The marketing manager of McDonald’s Canada did a noble thing in today’s world of transparency: she answered a social media question with a nice little video giving a straight ahead entirely credible honest answer.

Holy hamburger, batman, that little video answer has taken off into viral world and now the world knows just how McDonald’s ‘cooks’ its photo shoots to make those burgers look so darn good. In fact, at this writing it has nearly 5,5 million views on YouTube making the marketing manager a bit of a media star. Those hits were fed by lots and lots of twitter comments and lots of media stories, such as this one in the Ottawa Citizen.

PR folks in a chat session LinkedIn (where I discovered this little incident) are raising the question: is this just some darn good PR or is this another example of transparency gone horribly wrong?  It certainly appears that there is room for both perspectives, as the video has given those who dislike McDonalds as well as those who think Photoshop is the epitome of all that is wrong with the corporate world plenty of fodder. The website “Red Ice Creations” gives a hint along with a pretty good photo that shows the food styled burger vs. the one bought in the store.

But, to my surprise [and gratitude], I’m finding an awful lot of appreciation for the transparency shown by McDonalds and the presentation of the photo shoot by Bagozzi. Twitter comments surprisingly positive. And mashable’s story has 68 comments at this point with many of them expressing appreciation to McDonald’s for their honesty. Those who are complaining are making it plain that they have other gripes with the company, ala:

If McDonalds wants to be honest they should be honest about the quality and Hygiene of their products, do the same for what kind of meat you guys are using, what part of the world and under what conditions you produce that meat. Same goes for the souces its been used in the burgers and how healty they are. Now that would be being honest.

It seems to me, in looking at this event, the “Internet” (my term for the community of people who dominate Internet conversation) is appearing to have a conversation with itself about transparency. They see it as a huge value and want to encourage it. But they also see in it that such openness carries risks to companies and reputations. So they appear quick to shout down the nay sayers quick to criticize a major brand when they are being surprisingly transparent.

Here are my take aways from this story:

- transparency continues to be an exceptionally important value today, particularly among “the Internet.”

- honesty is also important and transparency and honesty go together, but there is a certain degree of queasiness about doctoring photos. Consider the heat BP took in the middle of the spill when it came to light that someone photoshopped in some images to show a control room full of lit-up screens rather than some being off. Innocent it seemed, but not treated that way at all by the press or the “Internet.”

- all things being equal, a company demonstrating transparency is going to more of a pass

- when you have critics, they will jump on any little old thing to try to belittle you. Their gripe might be something unrelated but anything that looks questionable will garner a response that says, “See how odious these people are?”

- don’t let sinners drive your policies. By that I mean there are three groups: saints (those you have with you no matter what), sinners (those you have against you no matter what) and saveables (those who can be swayed by the sinners or saints.) Play to the saveables. Too many companies have let their most outspoken critics drive the discussion. In the heat of social media criticism make sure you know where your saveables are at and they may not be participating in the online discussion.

So I’m coming down on the side of those who are saying to McDonalds: good job. George Washington didn’t get spanked when he owned up to chopping down the cherry tree. But, if Papa Washington had discovered it and little George had hid the ax, he’d be in a world of hurt. McDonalds should be very glad the Hope Bagozzi did the video and not someone sneaking into the photo shoot to do them damage. The story would be quite different.

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