Szechuan Sauce and Corporate Nostalgia

Over the weekend, I was one of many Rick & Morty fans to be disappointed with McDonald’s. If you haven’t heard about it, a quick breakdown of that sentence is probably in order. Rick & Morty is an animated series based on Doc and Marty from Back to the Future, and the show lampoons pop culture and other targets by mixing Doctor Who-style travel with conventional family sitcom storytelling. And in the third series premiere episode, Rick is being interrogated inside his own mind after being captured by aliens, and uses the memory mining technology he is being subjected to in order to experience his memory of McDonald’s Szechuan dipping sauce, which was part of a promotion for the 1997 Disney animated film Mulan.

Since that episode premiered on April 1st of this year, McDonald’s has reaped the benefits of being associated with something cool for the first time in a long time. They gifted the show creators with a bottle of the sauce, and on Saturday, they brought it back as part of a new product launch celebrating all of their dipping sauces. The actual release was a debacle, with many locations having hundreds of Rick & Morty fans show up for 20-30 cups of sauce. We went to the Bala Cynwyd location, and were told that there were 30 cups of sauce and they had already been allocated long before the scheduled time. They seemed to have a wristband system, and word was that those fans blessed with the glory of Szechuan sauce had been waiting for hours.

Of course, in recent months, the Rick & Morty fan base has gained an unsavory reputation at best. Since the previous season aired, the writing staff has been balanced to being 50% female, and those writers have been harassed online relentlessly (ironic because although each episode gets credited to a specific writer, they are basically written in a group setting). Similar to other media popular with young men, they also take the wrong lesson from the show, idolizing the detached-to-the-point-of-nihilism Rick when the show often suggests he is the villain of the story. So perhaps predictably, a vocal subset of fans chose to react like entitled brats when their expectations were dashed. It is also my impression that many of these fans were likely to not even be of McNugget-consuming age in 1997.

Being a fan of the show but being an even bigger fan of fast food promotions, however, I was more invested in revisiting my own memories of Szechaun sauce than I was in doing a thing because it was referenced on a TV show. And this promotion is a fascinating case study for nostalgia culture and how corporations weaponize our feelings in order to drive consumer spending.

All advertising is based on feeling. At its simplest, “consume our product and your life will feel like ____” is a bedrock of advertising. And the most established brands only have to reference a feeling. My favorite example of this is a Coca-Cola bumper that runs before movies at my local AMC theaters. It simply uses the visuals and (more importantly) sounds of Coke pouring into a cup while text says “The sound, the feeling, Coca-Cola,” or something like that. But it never mentions the taste. It doesn’t have to, and by the end of this 15 second ad, I am usually salivating.

But corporations, like Coca-Cola, Disney, McDonald’s and many others, face an increasingly crowded and competitive market. Middle class spending is flat or negative, and the Internet makes access to alternative products easier than ever for the average consumer. But startups like local restaurants obviously don’t have millions of dollars in advertising at their disposal, which they don’t need, because word of mouth is so much more effective. But even a new hip burger joint chain like Shake Shack doesn’t have our own memories to use against us.

Watching “The Rickshank Rickdemption,” I wasn’t reacting to Rick waxing nostalgic about Szechuan sauce because I love Rick & Morty. When explaining to my wife why we were dashing to McDonald’s at exactly 2:00 in the afternoon (we typically only eat McDonald’s on road trips because it is convenient, consistent, and ubiquitous), I was telling her about how much I loved going to McDonald’s with my family, and how that–along with seeing new Disney films–were important sort of traditions that I look back on fondly. Those memories were the real drive behind my desire for a specific dipping sauce. I don’t even really remember what it is supposed to taste like, but I remember those feelings.

I am sure that I am not alone for having positive associations with McDonald’s, Disney, and countless other megacorporations. It likely explains the rise of Funko, the rebranding of Hot Topic, and countless other business decisions. It’s also why Stranger Things, the live action Beauty & the Beast, and IT have been huge hits. I’m not sore about it. Businesses exist to make money, and exploiting our nostalgia is merely a previously untapped resource culturally. Without much evidence, I still confidently lay it at the feet of the Baby Boomer generation, who so successfully mythologized their own culture that you can still buy Woodstock shirts at Target and Rolling Stones tickets go for hundreds of dollars. There’s a natural cycle of influence and echoes across time, but it’s being refined like any other natural resource.

While not inherently a problem, it is good to be aware of this consumer culture since we are all part of it. So that it doesn’t result in you waiting in a line at a fast foot chain for more than a few minutes. We own our own memories. Marketing works, but awareness allows us to make our own choices, and vote with our dollars. For myself, I’m excited to head down to Condiment at Reading Terminal Market to try and get some Schwifty Sauce. But I’ll also probably try and get some when they bring it back this winter anyway (as long as it is as easy as promised):

Because we’re already living the Blade Runner future.

Author: Ryan Silberstein

Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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