In 1996, economist Thomas Friedman proposed his famous analysis of Clinton-era capitalist globalization with an opinion piece in the “Foreign Affairs” pages of the New York Times, cheekily dubbed “The Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention.” The premise (later disproved) suggested that “No two countries that both have a McDonald’s have ever fought a war against each other.” He explained, “No question, the spread of McDonald’s (a new one opens every three hours) is part of this worldwide phenomenon of countries integrating with the global economy and submitting to its rules, but this is not a smooth linear process. It produces a backlash inside countries from those who do not benefit from this globalization, who feel that their traditional culture will be steamrolled by it and who fear that they won’t eat the Big Mac, the Big Mac will eat them.” Well, if global McDonaldization was the perfect metaphor for the homogenizing spread of American capitalist and cultural hegemony 25 years ago … K-Pop sure as hell is the ideal lens for understanding the present.
Like McDonald’s franchises, K-Pop groups are market-tested and focus-grouped entities, disseminated around the world and designed to deliver maximum pleasure to the widest possible audience. Their appeal transcends language, and their branding is iconic and infectious. Just last Friday, President Biden, at a press conference about global relations, said, “K-Pop fans are universal.” That same day, masters of the universe BTS premiered the music video for its new single “Butter” on YouTube and broke multiple Guinness World Records for global viewership in the process. Like 2020’s “Dynamite,” “Butter” is the boy band’s bid for song of summer, aiming for global, mainstream popularity with English lyrics and fun, catchy, accessible-funky production. BTS is, quite frankly, the perfect match for McDonald’s first global celebrity collab. According to an interview with McDonald’s marketing execs Vicki Chancellor and Morgan Flatley in Rolling Stone, the Travis Scott and J. Balvin meals were limited to American locations, whereas with the BTS collaboration, they’re “expanding from U.S.-only to activating in nearly 50 markets,” ranging from Colombia to Vietnam to Morocco to Lithuania. Considering that its fandom, ARMY, has a larger population than many developed nations, it’s a brilliant market for McDonald’s to go after.
BTS said that its “Famous Orders” are huge drivers for McDonald’s digital business, including app retention. And if anything is true of the BTS Meal, it’s that it is poised to set fire to the internet. On May 26 — a date that was burned into my brain as the BTS drop thanks to frequent reminders on social — a banner appeared at the top of the McDonald’s app, branded in BTS’s signature purple, and clicking on it brought up graphics of the seven boys accessorizing with drinks, fries, and nuggies. The rollout is as much about the digital experience as anything, whereas the app didn’t seem quite ready to handle Travis Scott’s Cactus Jack push, and the J. Balvin meal got fumbled in a number of ways (the merch fell through). Even before I put in an order, I was prompted to “Go backstage with BTS,” where I could “check out exclusive 360 views of behind-the-scenes content” and attempt to “spot the hidden clue for more from BTS and McDonald’s.” My interest was McPiqued, to be sure, but the Elite Backstage Experience really just had me spinning around in my bedroom like a ding-dong, looking at a 360 photo of the bandmates posing in the world’s most-coke-den-looking McDicks. The “hidden clue,” unless my phone was glitching, was just … a McDonald’s logo next to RM? This mini-game should have led to a bonus, like a free extra dipping sauce or dessert, but even without one it was a cute enough nod to BTS’s parasocial approach to celebrity (backstage choreo videos, 360 livestreams), which has been instrumental to its success. (Kind of made me feel like when I was 6 and couldn’t beat levels on the I Spy CD Rom game, though. Rule of thumb: Don’t make the customer feel like a dingus.)
Then it was on to the order screen, which was smooth (like butter) and told me what I’d be getting as part of this BTS Meal: Ten McNuggets, a medium Coke, a medium fries, and two new dipping sauces. Some notes from the gourmand’s table: McNuggets are a perfect match for BTS. Real heads know that McNuggets come in four shapes: bell, boot, bone, and ball, giving a feeling of variety to true nug connoisseurs while basically being all the same thing if you’re not looking closely. Boy bands (yes, even BTS) operate on McNugget logic: Each group will have the arty one, the funny one, the sensitive one, the edgy one. Among its seven members — Jin, Suga, J-Hope, RM, Jimin, V, and Jungkook — BTS has at least two of each. Some of them are all four. (And I would say something about how modern K-Pop rap is a simulation of American rap, the way McNuggies are a simulation of chicken — good but different! Good but processed! — but I’d prefer not to be murdered over a fast-food review, thanks.)
The BTS Meal came to nearly $10, which I wouldn’t have thought twice about were the app not offering, right below it, ten McNuggets for only $2 because the Brooklyn Nets won at basketball, or something. If I had paired that with a drink from the dollar menu and medium fries, I could have reverse-engineered a BTS Meal for half the price. It was a moment of two very different modes of fandom, sports and pop, butting up against each other, waging battle in the app. It would have paid in that moment to be a Nets fan, but that wouldn’t have been staying true to the boys. If forking over double for nugs meant feeling closer to Taehyung, then so be it.
If you’ve ever seen videos by TikTok user @darqlizard, who re-creates the sensory experience of going to the world’s worst, most cacophonous Kohl’s/Olive Garden/Jo-Ann’s Fabrics, then you more or less understand what it’s been like to try to acquire these celebrity collab meals at the dearly departed West 4th McDonald’s in the past. But today, I was picking up at the McDonald’s at Nostrand and Fulton, a.k.a. the most chaos-hearted fast-food intersection this side of Myrtle-Broadway. Not once since I had moved into my apartment at the start of 2021 had its Diet Coke fountain been operational, essentially forcing me to detox and reevaluate my entire lifestyle. So hear me when I say I am CONVINCED that the franchises had special training prior to the BTS Meal rollout because the experience was, in a word, elite.
My order was ready three minutes after I placed it on the app. There was bright purple BTS signage throughout the store, which is still takeout-only because of the pannie. And — get this — the guy who called out my order was … nice? I was suspicious of his friendliness, as in old newsreels of weary Muscovites recoiling from the smiling staff at the first Soviet McDonald’s. I half-expected the boys of BTS to pop out from behind the counter as some sort of prank for their BANGTANTV channel.
I had secured the bag. The salt-strewn, delicious bag. But would the BTS Meal be as delicious as its seven adorable mascots? Or would it light up my toilet like dynamite?
The centerpiece of the BTS Meal is that, unlike Travis Scott’s and J. Balvin’s meals before it, the boys actually introduced two new menu items: Cajun and Sweet Chili dipping sauces. You already know what McNuggets taste like (little beige clouds sent down from heaven itself). You already know about fries and Coke. But these sauces are gorgeous. They are the new eighth and ninth members of BTS. And unlike Rick & Morty fans with Szechuan sauce before it, ARMY hasn’t harassed McDonald’s employees for it. The attractive packaging in shades of millennial pink and lilac fits BTS’s current aesthetic perfectly, with Korean lettering on the labels to make this one of the more authentic experiences you can have in a McDonald’s on Fulton on a Wednesday. The sweet chili sauce has a beautiful, mild back-of-the-throat heat with a good, complex, almost vegetal base note of some sort of real pepper. The Cajun was more of a creamy variation on McDonald’s old hot-mustard sauce (do they still have that?), and both got to be the main event on the blank canvas of nugs and fries. Still, I couldn’t help but mourn the missed opportunity for a sauce that tied into “Butter” … Buttermilk ranch, maybe? Or honey butter? It’s clear, though, that BTS is thinking long term, here. This isn’t about a single promotion cycle. This is about building condiment legacy.
Overall, this collab made me optimistic for the future of musician promos at chains. Doubly so when I saw the merch rollout that McDonalds and BTS have planned for the coming weeks. (I’m gonna need that plushy robe.) These sauces were the taste of professionalism, of global domination, of our tangy brand-synergistic overlords. They should have brought back the McNugget Buddies and dressed them all up like the different members of BTS, though. Could you imagine?
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