Top Tips: How to Navigate a Negative Viral Trend

McDonald's Grimace Shake recently launched a menacing TikTok trend.

The words “TikTok Trend” can strike fear in many adults’ hearts. Some have led to Kia cars being hotwired, stolen and kids being charged with grand theft auto. The milk crate challenge led to many injuries. Another viral social media phenomenon, the Tide Pod challenge poisoned many teenagers who ingested the said pods.

It can be a big problem when your brand or organization ends up on the wrong side of virality.

The latest trend, featuring McDonald’s Grimace Shake, positioned the purple icon as a murderer. On June 12, the hamburger behemoth released a novelty shake for Grimace’s birthday. However, two weeks later, TikTokers depicted the lovable mascot in a farce as a culprit—his shake causing the “deaths” of many who ingested the shake.

As of June 28, Polygon says “#grimaceshake [generated] 689 million views.”

A blessing or a curse depending who you ask—however, McDonalds responded with a truly tongue-in-cheek post.


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A post shared by McDonald’s (@mcdonalds)

So for this edition of Top Tips, we asked communicators what to do if your product is misused or misinterpreted, AND that goes viral? Here are our top answers (in no particular order).

1. Stephanie Pryor, Founder at LANC Marketing:

“I think it depends on the misuse/misinterpretation. Eating Tide Pods or snorting cinnamon could actually be hazardous.

Like most detergent products, Tide Pods, a laundry detergent pod sold by Procter & Gamble (P&G) since 2012, can be deadly if ingested.

It's also possible for someone to inhale cinnamon while choking or gagging on it, which can cause inflammation in the lungs, a thickening of lung tissue, and scarring. This can lead to pneumonia, a collapsed lung, and/or permanent lung damage.

McDonald's response to the Grimace Shake trend was minimal, and I think that makes sense (A) because joking about their product killing people *probably* isn't aligned with their messaging, and (B) if they jumped in on it, that might take away some of the authenticity and originality of the trend itself.

Where McDonald's is concerned, this misuse is a UGC goldmine. I'm 31 years old, and even my friends are talking about this shake that otherwise would have barely registered.”

2. Adam Cormier, Director of Public Relations, Remitly:

“The challenge for brands communicating during a crisis is making every word count. A verbose response can fuel longer stories and create opportunities for further scrutiny. Conversely, short responses can look ambivalent or lacking empathy.

The situation and timing is everything, as is the choice of medium with which to communicate externally. These variables all need to be considered in a response calculus.

The takeaway here for comms pros is to have a section of your playbook for matters that are 'concerning' so you are not flat-footed when a burgeoning trend begins to impact the brand.”

3. Miriam Schwartz, Senior Content Marketing Writer:

“These videos make me love Gen Z even more. They're hilarious, harmless, and I definitely found myself at a McD's the other night.

If you find your brand in this situation:

  • Embrace the chaos if the effect is overall positive and/or harmless. This kind of virality would cost a fortune in marketing spend.

  • Don't meddle. Nothing kills a cool, organic, zeitgeist-y moment like a corporate intervention or other brands jumping on a trend.

  • Or…if a brand decides to get involved, make it funny and elevate the original creators. If you don't have anyone funny on staff or agency, don't try.

  • When something is being misused, like Tide Pods, and there's a possibility of genuine harm, I'd jump on this with someone like Bill Nye who can do a nerdy video about what soap does to your esophagus, or a cross-promo with Taco Bell where you can trade Tide Pods in for a free taco or something (and then clean the sauce off your shirt with your detergent!)”


Nicole Schuman is senior editor for PRNEWS. Follow her @buffalogal