As I was driving home a few weeks ago I was taken by this billboard from McDonald’s. It’s part of their new-ish ‘Our food, your questions’ campaign. What ‘took’ me wasn’t the campaign itself but rather that the question, ‘Does your ice cream have pig fat at all in it?’, is still floating around after more than two decades.
I’m 32 years old as I write this and, when I was in primary school, the whole pig’s-fat-in-McDonald’s-ice-cream rumour was around. Seeing the billboard made me think about the idea of trust in business, but then about apathy, and here we are. There’s a dearth of research into public perceptions around pig’s fat and ice cream so forgive this prose for being anchored in my personal option – but hey, it’s blog after all!
Pig’s fat for real
On the one hand, I think we secretly want there to be pig’s fat in McDonald’s ice cream. That keeps them in the place of the ‘evil corporate entity’ that we love to hate. On the other hand, I think we secretly know that it’s a ridiculous idea. And, do we really believe that we’d ever get an honest answer out of McDonald’s anyway?
You would think an untenable situation like this would rock soft serve sales to their core, creating fancy plummeting graphs and causing brainstorm meetings and inquiries and, dare I say, documentaries.
Yet, we’re still buying soft serve. In fact, the ubiquitous 30c cone has remained an institution. The threat of pig’s fat, it seems, has not dampened our desire for some of that soft serve goodness.
To have a question like that still being asked more than two decades in the public domain (and it may well have been long before my primary school days) is something of an indictment on McDonald’s and our trust of that brand and business. Or, maybe it’s broader than that. Maybe it’s an indictment on our trust of any mega-millions and mega-billions business. The only real reason for building microsites where people can ask the tough questions, and for buying billboard space to promote such transparency, is because trust is gold and is hard as all get-out to gain in the world of corporations.
One of my personal core values is social justice, so it’s no wonder I started mentally drafting a blog about pig’s fat and trust – but as I was ‘writing’ it out, I realised there’s much more to this picture. Enter apathy.
If we don’t entirely trust McDonald’s, but its business keeps going through the roof with its soft serve sales remaining steady (I’m sure), what does that say about us…the general public. It’s almost the ultimate reverse psychology campaign. We’ll buy another cone, or sundae, just to check, and then another, and then…
It’s like a widespread social meh! Even pig’s fat can’t take down the soft serve (and I’m sure there’s no pig’s fat in it). That’s simply crazy. Surely that would be enough, but it’s not. A concept that makes me dry-retch at the mere possibility hasn’t halted the tide of consumer dollars going in the direction of the iconic Macca’s ice cream moment. And I’ve been one of them.
Trust, apathy and creating change
I started thinking about the power of apathy in trying to create change. Yes, trust is one of the strongest forces in today’s business world – today’s anything world. But I’m not sure that we’re really getting our heads around apathy. This is more than media clutter – more than busy people who don’t have time for our pitch or our promise – more than our fragmented world of frail and failing networks. This is widespread, fundamental apathy. If it (eg tasty soft serve treats) matter more to me than rumours (eg pig’s fat and pigs flying) then I’ll have my cake and eat it too, thank you very much.
Lessons for leaders and marketers
There’s no silver bullet to building trust nor to overcoming apathy but, if you’re in the business of creating change – of trying to encourage greater environmental awareness, reverse poverty, mobilise people to help others and so on – then in the least you will need to factor in our current social malaise if you want any chance of success.
Be transparent, never lie and never hide – sounds simple but generally people default to a trust position first. Trust is generally lost rather than never there in the first place. Do what it takes to keep people’s trust. Winning it back, it seems, might take more than two decades.
Connect what you want with what ‘they’ want – it was one of my former bosses that introduced me to the idea of Radio W-double-I-FM (what’s in it for me). It’s not enough that what you want makes sense, or is rationally good or apparently simple. If I don’t care anyway, or I care but I think it’s someone else’s problem, then I don’t care. Make me care.
Be passionate – few things overcome apathy quite like passion. I think most of us are wired up to want to be part of a cause…maybe even a revolution. Show passion, be genuine and make it personal and I might just decide to join you.
Be better – Maggie Beer probably never gets asked if there’s pig’s fat in her ice cream (the burnt fig, honeycomb and caramel is my favourite). She’s gets to spend her marketing dollars on adding value rather than demystifying the basics.
Offer hope that matters – most of the big challenges that we face as a society seem too big and that’s the kicker for apathy. Don’t offer false hope or naive promises but if you want me to be part of change, you have to help me understand how my actions will contribute to sustainable change IN MY LIFETIME. Make your cause big enough to be aspirational – go for a world without poverty (please). Just make your plan small enough for people to connect with it in a meaningful way.
Some thoughts. I think I’ll go for ice cream now.