The Untold Truth Of McDonald's Szechuan Sauce

In the summer of 1998, media empire Disney partnered up with fast food burger chain McDonald's to promote their animated feature film Mulan. IMDb describes the film as an adaptation of a Chinese folktale about a young woman who covertly takes her elderly father's place when he is conscripted into the army to defend their country against an invading force. According to The China Daily, the campaign included a very popular, limited-time dipping sauce that was inspired by the spicy flavors in Szechuan cuisine, aptly named Szechuan Sauce.

The promotional material for the fast food tie-in was criticized as racist by many, and even spawned an email campaign started by Chinese-American Cornell student Paul Leung, stating that you don't have to be Chinese to recognize how offensive the advertisements for the sauce were. Entertainment Weekly described the promotion as featuring highly stereotypical depictions of Chinese culture, including television ads with McDonald's clown mascot Ronald McDonald wearing a headband and doing karate, jokes about sitting on the floor to eat, and McNugget boxes emblazoned with the phrases "Run, don't wok..." and "McNuggets are Chinamite!" 

While McDonald's insisted at the time that the campaign was not offensive, and had been approved by their Asian-American employees as well as a focus group, they ended the promotion on July 2, 1998, which Moviefone states was less than a month after it was initially rolled out.

Normally, accusations of cultural insensitivity would mean the end of any promotion

Normally, racist charges brought against such a large company would mean the end of any of the offending items or advertisements, but Szechuan Sauce was so beloved by consumers that they continued to push for it's reintroduction. Eat This Not That! states that there was even a petition calling for the re-release of the sauce that was signed by over 45,000 people.

The campaign really gained traction when, in April of 2017, popular Adult Swim cartoon Rick and Morty released an episode titled "The Rickshank Rickdemption," featuring the product. The season three premiere episode ended with a rambling monologue delivered by titular character Rick on the essential meaningless of existence, and how his only real objective in life was to find the discontinued McDonald's Szechuan Sauce (via Newsweek). Vox reports that after the episode aired, fans began scouring the internet in search of the elusive dipping sauce, paying wildly-inflated prices for bottles and packets of the stuff on sites like Ebay. Seeing an easy opportunity for not only increased revenue but also free advertising, McDonald's decided to re-release their Szechuan Sauce for one day only as a promotional tie-in with the show.

Fans were furious with the chain for failing to deliver on its promises

The event was an unmitigated disaster. Vox states that low stock paired with a lack of communication between McDonald's corporate and individual franchises meant that on October 7, 2017, Rick and Morty fans swarmed McDonald's locations in search of the promised condiment only to find there was none. The chain had also stated that there would be a limited supply of promotional posters available, causing many die-hard fans to line up hours ahead of time. Upon learning the sauce was sold out, or never available in the first place, some fans began to harass McDonald's staff members, jump on counters, and refuse to leave stores in protest. The backlash online was immediate and furious as well, with social media users proposing boycotts and class action lawsuits, and calling on the company to rectify the situation, and apologize to fans and their staff who had to bear the brunt of frustrations.

In an attempt to make amends, Thrillist reports that McDonald's released the sauce for a third time beginning on February 26, 2018. The chain promised to send 20 million sauce packets to McDonald's locations across the United States for fans who missed out initially. Forbes states that in addition to increased access to the sauce, McDonald's created a three-part investigative podcast series called The Sauce in which they apologized to fans, admitted to their mistakes, and answered questions related to the incident.