Think of a restaurant brand with a reputation for “bad food.”

Did McDonald’s cross your mind? I wouldn’t be surprised, if so.

Food served at McDonald’s has long had a shady reputation, despite the company possessing a brand value of $42.254 billion and a serviced customer base upwards of 27 million people per day. Whether the negative reputation of McDonald’s food is merited is certainly up for debate, but it’s not of greatest interest to me. What I do find intriguing, however, is the new approach McDonald’s is taking in dealing with skepticism about its food quality… Addressing it head-on.

You may have seen AKHIA President Ben Brugler’s recent post about McDonald’s “Our Food. Your Questions.” campaign. As he pointed out, McDonald’s has recently changed its approach to messaging about its food quality, deciding to no longer ignore the questions of critics, but to address them directly.

“The work we’ve done in the past has been one-way,” explained Kevin Newell, chief brand and strategy officer for McDonald’s USA in a recent interview. “We’ve made nutrition information about our food available for a number of years. But people had to go find it. Now we’re inviting consumers to go on a journey with us to get those questions answered.”

McDonald’s isn’t addressing people’s questions in secret. They’ve created a website dedicated to the “Our Food. Your Questions.” campaign, and they’re promoting it through television ads and across the Web. They even have Grant Imahara, former “MythBusters” host as a prominent contributor to their series of campaign-based webisodes.

Addressing unflattering rumors head-on in a marketing campaign is an interesting approach that few brands take, and many are likely watching to see how it shakes out. Some surely think it’s a mistake to draw attention to the fast food giant’s negative press. I, however, am not one of those people.

The Refutational Approach to Argumentation

If you have read my other posts, you likely know I’m a theory guy. So, what does the academic literature on rhetoric have to say about the messaging approach McDonald’s is embracing with its latest marketing campaign?

That it’s a great idea, basically. Researcher John A. Williams may have summed the cumulative research up best, writing, “The most effective argument for any case will incorporate and give full consideration to the best available counterevidence against the case.”

In other words, do exactly what McDonald’s is doing.

There really isn’t much dissension on the matter, either. Taking a “two-sided refutational” approach that both acknowledges and addresses the challenges to one’s argument or interests is almost always the most effective means of persuading an audience. Consider, for instance these findings:

  • By refuting counterclaims, refutational appeals make negative messaging about a brand seem less credible, reducing cognitive dissonance for audience members (Ray et. al., 1973)
  • Refutational messages are more stimulating than supportive messages, underlining conflict and motivating audience members to develop interest in messaging (Ray et. al., 1973)
  • Two-sided messages are almost always more persuasive, except when message receivers already agree with the message, are easily confused, are uninformed on the issue or will never be exposed to an opposing viewpoint (Allen et al, 1999)
  • Two-sided, refutational messages are 20 percent more effective overall than one-sided messages (Allen, 1991)

The academic findings are clear: If you want to build resistance to attitude change or defend against competitive/negative reputational attacks, giving your perspective on the points raised against you is a solid strategy. If this is the case, though, why aren’t more brands trying this sort of approach?

My best guess? They’re scared to do it. It often seems easier to pretend counterclaims have no merit by ignoring them outright, focusing only on supportive messaging. McDonald’s certainly could have done that… with more than $42 billion in assets, the company is clearly not hurting too badly. What McDonald’s likely realized, however, is what any crisis communications expert will tell you: The best way to overcome negative publicity is to get out in front of the problem by telling your side of the story in a controlled, respectful manner. Don’t hide anything, and while you’re at it, you may just build rapport with stakeholders who appreciate your honest approach.

The overall success of McDonald’s “Our Food. Your Questions.” campaign has yet to be determined. If it is as successful as I suspect, however, I look forward to seeing what other brands might follow suit in the near future.

Lukas Treu is Content Architect at AKHIA