Have you seen the McDonald’s “Signs” advertisement? I’d be surprised if you haven’t seen it, talked about it, or at least read about it. When I first saw it in January, I knew it was going to create a buzz.

And it has. Ever since its debut during the NFC playoffs, and later that evening during the Golden Globes, there has been a buzz about the ad, from Huffington Post to the Today Show to CNN. Responders on Twitter labeled it everything from exploitative and crass to brilliant and heartwarming. But how did this 60-second spot attract so much attention?

Authenticity has become so novel that’s it’s actually a clutterbuster. The McDonald’s “Signs” ad stood out as different because it was. Amid a whirr of fast-moving eye-candy, “Signs” is a simple slideshow of about 20 photographs. Each image shows some local “lovin’” displayed beneath the Golden Arches. Messages such as “WE BELIEVE IN YOU CRYSTAL” and “HAPPY 95 BIRTHDAY WOODY WE LOVE YOU” offer a glimpse into the history of franchises’ involvement in their communities, during the good times and the bad. “Signs” is honest, simple and straightforward, set to the catchy tune “Carry On” by the indie-pop band fun.

A lot of people dislike McDonald’s food. Others have major issues with the company itself. And then there are the people who will see a McDonald’s ad campaign and Photoshop their own parody the very next day. But that doesn’t matter. The “Signs” ad became a main topic around the water cooler. McDonald’s wants to connect with the people who respond to “real” when they see it. Those people got the ad. The campaign is real in a landscape filled with the staged and stylized—and for that reason, it works.

In late 2014, The History Factory partnered with Leo Burnett in researching and curating the “Signs” images. We’re intimately familiar with the stories behind them. Viewers could find out more on McDonald’s Tumblr site. Here, the advertiser capitalized on the storytelling trend to engage viewers with even more authentic content beyond the ad itself.

This is a photograph of a damaged McDonalds sign. The main display has it's contents blown away, revealing open holes.

For viewers to appreciate the ad, they don’t have to visit the site. They don’t need to know all the details. When people see “real,” they’ll fill in the story. Take, for example, the sign that says “OPEN,” despite the apparent destruction that hit. What happened there? Was it the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina? A tornado? A riot? Actually, it was taken in 2004 after Hurricane Jeanne hit Florida.

Viewers don’t need to know the specifics of the signs for the message to come across. Everyone knows their own 95-year-old birthday boy, their own Crystal. Some of these images are emotive and powerful. Others are warm and nostalgic. It’s hard to not feel an emotional connection.

There’s something very forward-looking and creative in the “Signs” campaign. It may be rare in today’s world of retouched, loud, dizzying ads. But it’s nothing new. It’s called authenticity. Nothing cuts through the clutter better than that.

For more information on how storytelling can help your organization, check out our comprehensive guide to corporate storytelling.

Share this

More on this Topic