Thousands of Rick and Morty fans are currently upset, because McDonald’s failed them. Rick and Morty (RAM) is an Internet-popular television cartoon, which just completed its third season. The premiere episode, “The Rickshank Rickdemption,” aired on April 1. In it, secondary protagonist Rick Sanchez announced his character arc this season: finding McDonald’s Szechuan sauce. Sanchez explained that the sauce was a promotional tie-in for the ‘98 film Mulan, that it was discontinued, and was now practically impossible to find anywhere—even in the multiverse.
RAM never misses a trick. The fanbase responded: Let us have this sauce!. McD’s heard their cries. Recipes for Mulan-style Szechuan sauce are everywhere online, but that didn’t really matter: the potion became Quest Object Number One for the RAM-base. McDonalds’ read the room, and had a promotion last Saturday. What resulted was broadly predictable. As Motherboard reported:
Saturday, thousands of fans of Rick & Morty … lined up at McDonalds dining establishments around the world for their chance to sample Mulan Szechuan-flavored Chicken McNugget dipping sauce, a food accessory that has become a meme among “the best fanbase in the multiverse.” As has been noted by Rick and Morty observers out there, this pop-culture crossover effort was not entirely successful. It turns out appetite for fast food sugar sauce far outweighed overall supply of said sauce, and many Rick and Morty fans are currently Mad Online.
To quote from a book by famous war criminal George W. Bush, the Golden Arches had A Charge To Keep, and they stumbled, badly. There simply was not enough precious meme sauce to go around. Suburban consumers raged incoherently at blue-collar restaurant workers: it was like watching the Trump Presidency in miniature.
McDonalds’ failure is unremarkable. After all, it lets the world down every day. Keeping alive is the crucial success of any human existence, and by now McDonald’s has probably killed more people than the American State Department. Because RAM is Reddit the Show, rage congealed into large weather systems of self-reinforcing outrage. Boycotts were discussed. Shit was talked. The kneejerk was plentiful and hysterical. And yet … while RAM’s fanbase is mockable, their disdain is not entirely irrational.
Market capitalization of McDs—that is, what you get if you compute all its shares together—is approximately $100 billion. RAM is primarily a North American phenomenon. This is a corporation that processes cows into burgers for one percent of the worlds’ population every day. And they couldn’t rig a delivery system for a throwaway sauce joke. But this is not the point. Most modern mass institutions fail their clients. McD’s is just the most recent, most obvious, and by far the funniest example.
Some commenters on the Sauce Fiasco used the moment to bang the drum about millennials. But this misses the point. The reason to talk about the What Happened With the Sauce is not to scold people for expending their energy in frivolous ways. All of us living above the poverty line are engaged in some kind of wasteful behavior. Rather, when we talk about the Sauce, we are actually having a discussion about effort. People took time out of their day for the Sauce Fiasco. Thousands of RAM fans spent emotional energy on it. That took an investment of time and in some cases, money.
Why is this important? Because our society could be easily reformed, if people would Show Up. A lot of times, they don’t. Half of the business of progressivism is figuring out why. There are few people available for School Board meetings, but there are always sturdy numbers for consuming trinkets.
And honestly, who can blame them? Our politics seem unresponsive to human action, but when I buy toys, there is an immediate feedback. RAM feeds people in a way that advocating for workplace safety doesn’t. Consumption offers quantifiable, observable change. RAM tells its watchers they are sharper, smarter, woker people for having watched the show. Driving hours to eat Sauce is a sign of being in an elective priesthood. If it seems laughable—and let’s be honest, it is—that’s because civil society lacks such displays of drop-everything loyalty. Our civilization produces atomized, alienated people. When such people find something that speaks to them—like RAM—they will respond as only the hungry can, with displays of affection out of proportion to the source.
Which suits our rulers fine. Our system wants consumers, not agents of change. It prefers we confine our rebellion to easily-channeled cultural currents. As Kate Aronoff pointed out, “Neoliberalism is McDonald’s getting credit for providing a sauce and not a wage that can keep people from starving.” The passion of the RAM fanbase could so easily be turned to better targets. Why get upset at McD’s for not having the Sauce, and not get upset at McD’s failure to provide for their workers? The distance between not giving you what they promised, and not giving the workers what they need, is not so far apart. Authority’s disdain for consumers is their disdain for workers. The excuses are just as transparent.
According to a report published in 2016, McDonald’s in Australia underpaid their staff by at least fifty million.
argues that McDonalds’ employees are
some of the most underpaid workers in the country. The company’s cashiers and “team members” earn, on average, $7.75 an hour, just 50 cents higher than the federal minimum wage. Responding to rising living costs, many stores have staged walk-outs, strikes and protests, demanding a living wage. In Europe, where the minimum wage for employees is $12, customers pay just pennies more than their American counterparts for the same menu items, while the stores themselves typically bring in higher profit margins than ones in the United States.
You see it, surely. If the Internet can get them to roll out meme sauce, surely they can get McD’s to pay their people more.
Four years ago, the restaurant chain released a budget journal to help their employees arrange their finances. As Gothamist noted, it was a tacit admittal that no human being could live on a McD’s salary: “the Big Mac purveyor’s first piece of advice to employees: get a second job.”
According to Eater:
In 2016, McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook made $1.26 million as a base salary, or 74 times as much as the company’s lowest-paid workers: the average McDonald’s cashier made $17,000. This might enrage people who are demanding a national increase in minimum wage and have already targeted the burger giant due to its lack of support for the movement. In 2015, McDonald’s struck back, suing the city of Seattle when the town raised its minimum wage from $9.47 to $15.
In 2013, The Guardian asked a striking McD’s worker about her job. Her responses were telling:
It’s very tough. I get paid $9.15 an hour. I have to depend on the father of my children for a lot, always asking him for money. It would be nice to be able to support my kids on my own. That’s why I decided to work. I applied to McDonald’s, and they called me right away. I was hired right on the spot. When I started working, [my pay] was around $6.25 at hour. It went up because the minimum wage went up. I get a raise every 6 months, but it’s often only 5 cents. The most I’ve ever seen is a 25 cent raise, but that’s hard to get.
Taken together, what do these pieces of evidence imply? That McDonald’s is unfair to everyone: the consumers, who were told there would be enough sauce, and the workers, who are treated as cogs in a merciless machine.
The thing is, RAM made people care, through the distorted lens of irony, got them mad at a major corporation. Yes, it was for the dumbest and shallowest and most easily satirized reasons, but caring is a highly valuable commodity. Very low fires can be banked with little effort. We are all consumers of media, and we can all be prodded into action by the slightest of invitations.
The Internet is right to mock RAM’s fanbase for its wild reactions—but we would do well to remember that this country could be an organizer’s dream. People need a cause, and stars to sail by. Yearning together, even when it’s done by a zealous fanbase for an over-rated sauce, is a step on the ladder. Half of change is learning to be mad at the right people. Tom Paine said it was one step from the sublime to the ridiculous, but it can work the other way as well. Szechuan sauce is the first, but not the last demand we should make of McDonald’s.