The scenes on social media are horrifying. A body dangles from the trunk of a sedan, dripping purple goo. Another is draped over a basketball hoop with a net colored lilac. A third sputters in a bathtub full of dim handprints.
The liquid splashing over these tableaus is not blood. It’s an extremely purple McDonald’s milkshake.
The social media reaction has come to a head in recent weeks since McDonald’s released the Grimace Shake as part of its Grimace Birthday Meal, a menu item that highlights a purple, blob-like supporting player for the brand’s signature clown, Ronald McDonald. The limited edition drink has become a key ingredient in a TikTok trend in which users make up elaborate horror scenes – with Grimace as the implied assassin.
Each video starts with a TikTok user pretending to give a gleeful review of the shake. It then cuts to a shot of the person drenched in the drink – sometimes appearing dead, sometimes zombie – to flickering lights and creepy music.
Is McDonald’s perhaps concerned that people are pretending to drown themselves in one of their products? Or paint one of his mascots as a killer? Probably not, said Jonah Berger, an associate professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
“This is free advertising,” he said. “Not only does it increase awareness of the brand, but it makes the brand cooler among an important target group, which is young people.”
McDonald’s acknowledged the trend in posts on TikTok and Twitter on Wednesday. The company did not respond to a request for comment.
The first of the videos to gain traction was posted on June 13 by Austin Frazier, a 28-year-old social media executive in Knoxville, Tennessee, who is not associated with McDonald’s. While scrolling on TikTok, he came across a video of food blogger Wayne Dang tasting the shake.
Inspiration struck. He drove to McDonald’s and ordered one. He then filmed himself wishing Grimace a happy birthday and taking a sip. He then lay down on his kitchen floor and instructed his wife to transform the area into “a crime scene”, using the shake as blood.
“She put a little bit on my mouth and a little bit on the floor,” he said. “I was like, no, you have to ditch the whole thing.” Mr Frazier added that McDonald’s has not contacted him since the trend started. “They owe me a big check for all the shakes they sold,” he joked.
Many fast food brands have released stunt items that seem designed for social sharing, such as Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos taco and Pizza Hut’s stuffed crust hot dog pizza. In 2020, McDonald’s released a meal in collaboration with Travis Scott that caused an online frenzy.
The Grimace Shake was very likely another game for online attention, said Jared Watson, an assistant professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business. The shake has a shocking color and the taste isn’t dictated by the company, making it ripe for debate.
TikTok users have put their own absurdist spin on it. “Part of that trend is an act of rebellion,” said Dr. Watson. “They say, we’re seeing what you’re doing, and we’re going to steer it in a very different direction than you expected.”
The shake has introduced many younger customers to Grimace, a character with an always cheerful or unhappy expression. He seems less well known than his comrades, Hamburglar and Mayor McCheese, and his identity has been something of a mystery since his first appearance in the 1970s. In 2012, said the company Grimas was ‘the epitome of a milkshake’. Others have argued that Grimas is a giant taste bud.
Dylan Zitkus, 18, a Chicago-based content creator, said he had never heard of Grimace before seeing the TikTok videos. He bought a large Grimace Shake to join the trend.
“I didn’t want to do it at first because you have to smear the milkshake all over you,” said Mr. Zitkus, who described himself as lactose intolerant. “It’s cold. It’s unpleasant.”
He said he relented after watching other Grimace Shake videos more than five million times. He put on a white shirt and went to a park with a friend around 1 a.m.
“My neighbor saw me and said, ‘What are you doing?'” Mr Zitkus said. “I’m like, long story.”