video screen capture McDonald's Mulan tie-in commercial

Screen capture of 1998 McDonald’s commercial introducing the Szechuan sauce.

Sometimes, a slam-dunk marketing campaign goes horribly, horribly wrong. covered the lead up to highly-anticipated return of McDonald’s Szechuan dipping sauce last week. The teriyaki sauce was originally sold for a limited time as a option for an order of McNuggets as part of a 1998 promotional campaign with Disney’s animated Mulan movie.

The sauce gained current pop culture status thanks to the premiere episode of Rick and Morty‘s third season. Everyone’s favorite sociopathic scientist Rick Sanchez went on a fourth-wall-breaking rant about how he had to have it. As is to be expected, the results of his mania did not bode well for anyone who inadvertently got in the way of his pursuit of the “Mulan McNugget Sauce” as he calls it.

McDonald’s sought to tap into this new-found fandom to promote their Chicken Tenders product. Not surprisingly, the family-friendly restaurant did not directly tie their promotion to the notoriously crass Adult Swim cartoon. Ironically, the premiere episode of the third season did not shy away from using McDonald’s name or logo. And thus, a pop culture legend was born. An official McDonald’s Twitter contest giving away a trio of gallon jugs of the original sauce fed the popularity. Even celebrities such as Rick and Morty co-creator Justin Roiland got in on the excitement.

Limited Time, Limited Supply

Photo from eBay auction of dipping sauce

An eBay auction offering an elusive Szechuan Sauce packet.

To say that McDonald’s grossly underestimated the appeal would be an understatement. Only a certain number of restaurants had the sauce. And, each of those select locations only had 20 packets each. This had been detailed in a press release, but the message didn’t get communicated. Fans lined up outside locations early on Saturday the 7th hoping to get schwifty and snatch up a packet. The promotion, which was to begin at 2pm, first ran into trouble when some locations did not receive their allotment of the sauce.  Not surprisingly for a campaign born of social media, Twitter soon came alive with reports that many of those locations which had received their 20 packets had run out of them by 11am.

In some locations, police were called to break up fights, or disperse angry crowds of would-be customers. Some of these packets had already made their way onto eBay with asking prices of up to $800. Twitter especially was abuzz for several hours. A meme inspired by competitor Wendy’s famously sassy social media account quipped, “We (Wendy’s) have chicken tenders, but no Szechuan sauce. But then, neither do you.” A review of Wendy’s Twitter feed showed that it did not actually come from their account.

McDonald’s Responds and Promises to Make it Right

At 12:48pm, a little over an hour before the promotion was to start, McDonald’s admitted they had blown it. In a Tweet that again tacitly acknowledged the Rick and Morty connection they wrote, “The best fans in the multiverse showed us what they got today. We hear you & we’re sorry not everyone could get some super-limited Szechuan.”

This was followed soon after by a post on their homepage that promised a do-over. Their message also loosely touched on the origins of this newfound popularity. It can be read, in full, below:

apology message from McDonald's

McDonald’s homepage apology and new plans for Szechuan sauce.

McDonald’s has not announced the new date for the wide release, but somewhere in the multiverse, it’s already on the menu.




Wyatt D. Odd

Wyatt D. Odd