McDonald’s and ‘The Founder’: What to Do When Your Brand’s in an Unsought Spotlight

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"The Founder," set to open in the U.S. on Aug. 5, is the latest in a string of movies to examine an American corporate institution and the visionary figure behind it. Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs were given the Hollywood treatment (twice for the latter); now it's Ray Kroc's turn, the man who turned McDonald's into the most successful fast food business in the world.

The story of Kroc (played by Michael Keaton) wresting control of McDonald's from the actual founders of the restaurant, Dick and Mac McDonald, is one of questionable business ethics, and the film is not out to paint a flattering picture, The New York Times reported on May 19. Naturally McDonald's has grounds to be concerned about its image, but the filmmakers had to be more concerned about imagery. The film is, of necessity, replete with trademarked images and logos. The use of such is generally protected by "fair use" as long as McDonald's is not portrayed falsely. There's more of a gray area when it comes to marketing the film: Valerie Barreiro, who teaches about intellectual property at USC Gould School of Law, told the Times that "the risks are higher" when it comes to unauthorized use of trademarks in promotional materials such as movie posters.

The point is that there have been lots of opportunities for McDonald's to throw a legal wrench in the project, if only to slow down or harass the filmmakers. But director John Lee Hancock says that McDonald's has "made no attempt to interfere" with the movie.

If your brand were undergoing a withering examination on the big screen or in any entertainment product or work of art, how would you react? One would do well to heed the lessons of the Streisand effect. The term originates from a 2003 lawsuit filed by singer Barbra Streisand to attempt to have an aerial photograph of her home removed from an online collection of coastline photographs; the suit was successful only in drawing massive attention to the photograph and attracting hundreds of thousands of gawkers to the website. This same effect recently blew up in the face of UC Davis after it tried to scrub the Internet clean of information about its 2011 pepper-spray snafu.

When you try to impede the release of information, it looks as though you have something to hide. If a parent has a secret cabinet under lock and key, the child will nearly die of curiosity about what is inside; just so, the public will feel compelled to heed the words of whoever is talking about your brand if you attempt to interfere. Consider the placid response of McDonald's in this case, and unless there is serious slander underway, guide your brand with a steady hand through the turbulent waters until the storm passes.

Follow Ian James Wright: @ianwright0101