The Charles Ramsey-McDonald’s Episode: How a Viral Marketing Opportunity Can Backfire

The Charles Ramsey-McDonald's episode is shaping up as an argument that brands should respond to viral marketing opportunities slowly, cautiously—and perhaps not at all.

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Using a story about women being kidnapped and held against their will for years for marketing purposes is questionable enough. Now that the hero in the story turns out to have a history of domestic violence convictions, the Charles Ramsey-McDonald’s episode is shaping up as an argument that perhaps brands should respond to viral marketing opportunities slowly, cautiously—and sometimes not at all.

The accepted wisdom today is that when a brand is suddenly front and center in the news for almost any reason whatsoever, the company must seize the moment and take advantage of the situation as a marketing opportunity. Responding with speed is deemed to be absolutely essential.

Oreo, for instance, was widely lauded for its quick-thinking Tweet during the Super Bowl blackout. The Tweet, featuring a photo of the iconic cookie and the caption “You can still dunk in the dark,” was put up in 10 minutes—before the lights were back on at the New Orleans Superdome—and was immediately retweeted and liked on Facebook tens of thousands of times.

(MORE: Stealth Celebrity Endorsement: No Money Changes Hands, Just Free Burritos)

The Etch a Sketch toy and Sesame Street’s Big Bird both had big moments in the news during last year’s presidential campaign, and Poland Spring bottled water received plenty of attention thanks to Marco Rubio’s “Gulpgate” during the Republican Address to the Nation in February. These odd spectacles were all viewed as prime branding opportunities that fell into the laps of their respective marketing departments—an opportunity that Poland Spring, for one, was criticized for botching.

This week, McDonald’s was suddenly, bizarrely in the news in a big way, when a man named Charles Ramsey became a viral sensation. Ramsey is the neighbor who helped rescue three women who had been abducted and held captive for a decade in a home in downtown Cleveland. In interviews that have been shown on TV stations around the world—and viewed millions of times online—Ramsey mentioned that he was “eating my McDonald’s” when he heard screaming, leading him to save a woman trying to escape from the home.

(MORE: ‘I’m Free Now’: The 911 Call That Led to Cleveland’s Dramatic Escape)

Ramsey was immediately celebrated as a hero, as well as quite a character. Besides several quotes regarding McDonald’s, Ramsey offered much-repeated lines such as “You got some big testicles to pull this off, bro,” and “I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms. Something is wrong here. Dead giveaway. Dead giveaway. Deeeeeaaad giveaway.”

On Tuesday, McDonald’s Tweeted the following message:

“We salute the courage of Ohio kidnap victims & respect their privacy. Way to go Charles Ramsey- we’ll be in touch.”

It seemed as if McDonald’s was taking advantage of the episode as just another quick-response viral branding opportunity. What differentiates this situation from others in recent history, however, is that none of the scenarios involved kidnapping, unlawful imprisonment, and (likely) rape. McDonald’s was taken to task by some for distastefully involving itself in a horrifying story about Amanda Berry and the two other women who were held captive for years.

Others, however, have been calling for Charles Ramsey to get free McDonald’s for life, in the same way that many pro athletes have gotten free Chipotle burritos after mentioning their love of the brand on social media.

(MORE: Found: Timeline of Ohio Women Missing Since 2002)

Evidence has since surfaced that the hero, Charles Ramsey, is a convicted felon with a history of domestic violence on his rap sheet. Perhaps, one might think, it’s unwise for a brand to want such a man as a spokesperson. Perhaps, the Ramsey episode represents a cautionary tale for brands that are eager to take advantage of a hot marketing opportunity, before the public’s attention shifts elsewhere.

Besides the initial Tweet, McDonald’s has remained mostly silent about the Ramsey affair. “Over the course of the past couple of days, thousands of people have reached out to us expressing their sentiment for McDonald’s to do something for Mr. Ramsey. We hear them!” McDonald’s spokesperson Danya Proud said via e-mail, when TIME asked for an update on Wednesday evening—after word had already spread about Ramsey’s history of domestic violence. “That said, out of respect for the victims involved, as well as Mr. Ramsey, both McDonald’s and the local franchisees will personally be reaching out to Mr. Ramsey directly as we said we would with our Tweet.”


So would they award him with a lifetime supply of bigmacs? Vivek Sood mentioned in his book The 5-Star Business Networks that innovation is important for business and the different strategies the company will present.  McDonald's is just doing everything for their company - that includes butting in news


Mr. Ramsey happened to be at the right place at the right time.  I am happy for the rescue and that he had a working phone. 


oooooh, so he's a "convicted felon with a history of domestic violence", is he?   way to imply that he's spent the majority of his life in jail for repeated battery of women when that is not the case and i love how you sidestep the little matter of he and his ex-wife being on cordial terms (they're not "friends" but they're "friendly").

isn't that the point of the justice system, to teach ppl a lesson?  seems to me, too many ppl are like you and feel that branding is a better option because you sure as hell don't believe in redemption or learning lessons!

you're whining about mcdonald's capitalizing on mister ramsey, yet you couldn't get to your keyboard fast enough and start typing away with your sweaty little fingers, could you?

frankly, sir, you're a hypocrite and you disgust me.


#CharlesRamsey is a household name but for what reason? For memes, jokes, buffoonery, nigerfikation, nappy headed jokes, laughter at his apparent ghettoness? Really America? Aren't we missing the bigger picture? We have propelled this WORKING man into internet stardom, because of his looks, his candor and raw emotion NOT the fact that he WILLING gave his phone to a STRANGER and DID NOT LOOK AWAY as MOST OF US do!!! How many of US look away and roll our eyes when we see something happening that is NOT our business?? The story here is that he helped to free 3 women and 1 girl from a life of a monster, by not looking the other way... Grow Up America you're 200 years old already act like it!


thanks for the bucket of ice water. IMHO, I don't care about his past, the fact is he rose to the occasion when a lot of people with no rap sheet did nothing. 


This guy is a phenomenon. Now he has  website AND AN APP.... It's actually a pretty smart App.

ripuree 2 Like

A hero is created when someone automatically reacts to prevent the peril of another, without pausing to consider his own fate. True heroism is not something one seeks. It is not based on our past good or bad actions. And because the hero acts before he can think of rewards or honor, it is a better indicator of the true nature of that one. That was what happened to Charles Ramsey. He heard a woman crying for help, he investigated, and did not leave until a woman trapped for 10 years was freed. Now should he have considered that       as a MAN previously charged with wife beating he was disqualified from doing what he did? How does his previous mistakes minimize the title of hero, or any reward that that his actions deserve? And from your logic, should all convicted of a crime, continue to do criminal deeds only, even when the chance to do the humane thing come knocking on their door? Do you not understand that there are exponentially more psychopathic criminals in high places, who've committed the most heinous crimes, and will continue to do so; than all of those whose criminal activities are identified and penalized?

I have two sons (now grown men) whom, during their formative years, I had lost my temper and beaten unreasonably, although what I wanted to do most was to show them true love and care. Had my actions been reported, I probably would've been convicted for child abuse and served time. I've apologized to my children for terrorizing their childhood, because of my own misunderstanding of how to deal with life. 

Again, after I told their father that I had an affair in a period when he'd migrated, and our sons and I were waiting to join him, he too lost his temper and on two occasion lashed out. I knew that I would've responded the same way had the shoe been on the other foot, and therefore at first I didn't consider it domestic abuse. However, the moment I decided that hitting me was no longer tolerable, he must've sensed the new decision I hadn't spoken, and from that day till the day we separated he never attempted again. That was then. Today I reminisce with laughter at the time when I must have had a period of Temporary Insanity, when I decided and prepared myself with a knife to kill my ex-husband if ever he hit me again.

Today also we have leaders of countries who take our hard-earned tax dollars and drop bombs on innocent people in other countries in their effort to get rid of one leader, whose crimes to that leader's people, are just as egregious as what our leader is doing to us. Yet no one see those outright murdering of innocent people as more wrong than a person who (unable to cope with his immediate problems) wrongly lash out on those closest to him. 

According to the revelation, Mr. Ramsey eventually apologized to his ex for the wrong he did. Sure no one would condone Mr. Ramsey's actions, even if later we understand that the physical abuse went two ways. But the man has paid his dues. The man has apologized. Most of us expected that he had some kind of criminal record, since the society we live in disproportionately gives black men a criminal badge for non-violent actions, for which other men are forgiven or not even questioned.

As a privileged U.S. Senator in 1969 Ted Kennedy's reckless driving took the life of a women, from which he escaped safely and left the scene of the accident without reporting same. In that instance, the privileged Mr. Kennedy committed a crime for which he consciously, and willfully refused to take responsibility or worried about, until he could hide his wrong deeds no more. In 1963 a teenage girl who later became Laura Bush ran a red light and killed a man, yet who in their right mind would expect that to tarnish her character for the rest of her life.  And still the evil deeds of the Founding Fathers to black humans and Native Americans has made no one see and revere them as Great men.  

So Mr. Tuttle, Sir, a better perspective in this situation (as the majority of commenters have done) would be more fitting to your skills. No one expected Mr. Ramsey to have had a spotless history. He didn't go out seeking the attention he has gotten. And had he decided that his own acts of abusing his ex, precluded him from responding to the cries of a distressed woman, then that Sir would be a greater crime.    

bloodthirstyjon 3 Like

The dude paid his dues already. What happened in the past happened in the past. You saying you don't have a history, Brad?

JohnLee1 1 Like

Bottom line- If Charles Ramsey thinks like Brad Tuttle, it is most likely that these women wouldn't be rescued.  Think about Mr. Tuttle's cynical disposition, he probably thinks about his bottom line, his personal finance, reputation, the cool gig at Time magazine....but Mr. Ramsey (bad rap sheet and all), did something remarkable: broke into another's house (where he could get shot), help without hesitation.  So Mr. Tuttle, please, admit that you have no balls and that, at least in this story, Ramsey is the hero, and you are just a cynical little prick who, well, probably just always thinking about bottom line and won't bother to help.


Come on, lets no be so cynical.. I tend to be critical of corporations as well but perhaps McDonald's was just being nice? If we want corporations to be nice, rewarding them for that helps ;)

Now if they had said, "We're delighted to give Mr Ramsey free NewProductX for the next year," that would be something else.

anuinanna 1 Like

If you listen to Charles Ramsey's 911 call you will immediately know he is not a candidate for saint hood.  His role is helping Amanda Berry escape has been called into question as well.  But here is the deal.  The man is going to be a folk hero simply because his on camera interview has been turned into a Youtube sensation.  Convicted felon?  No one will care.  The guys is getting his 15 minutes.

Now onto more important stuff.  If Charles Ramsey's 15 minutes in any way creates more exposure to the plight of the tens of thousands of missing people in America it not such a bad investment in time and resources to have him as a spokesperson for the missing even if he is a convicted felon.  

People who are missing, who have been kidnapped are being held and tortured, raped and you think they give a damn who is howling at the moon as long as they are calling attention to the missing??? 


@anuinanna "The man is going to be a folk hero simply because his on camera interview has been turned into a Youtube sensation."

hmmm.... i saw the news broadcast first, THEN i heard about the autotune (which, btw, is amazingly well done).  speaking for myself (and, it seems, many others)  i like him because a) he didn't turn his back and b)  he's absolutely enjoyable to watch and listen to, in this world of pre-scripted, photoshopped, and "stand on the mark, please" media.

as for his supposedly taking credit away from angel cordero, have you actually listened to the original interview?  he states repeatedly "we" did this and "we" did that - not "i".  

has nobody stopped to think that perhaps mister cordero doesn't actually *want* a lot of official attention drawn to him?  the man speaks no english.  in cleveland.  think about it.

bobvilarules 1 Like

Isn't writing this story capitalizing off these girls because I have never heard of you and this page has several ads making you and time money?  Why should you be able to capitalize but McDonald's not?

miller 1 Like

To the journalist and newspaper, if theses were your daughters or yourelf  he rescued would you be praising Mr Ramsey or writing such rubbish. Give the man a break. The next hero with a  'chequered' past might not bother because of you!!!!!!!

Give him a heros welcome, please.

He mentioned on TV in his interviews about this episode and what his dad would have said, so you are reporting on old news to me as well, I got this from the horses mouth. As a women who will take no crap I loveMr Ramsey regardless of any past against his ex wife and so do the rescued girls, their family, the world.  As a paper, do you know what happned between Mr Ramsey and his wife, do you have all the facts.  I doubt it!!!!         Go report on the bad guys this is bringing distress to the world.

ProfessorCampbell 1 Like

The fact that he has this checkered past, but he still didn't hesitate to help those women, speaks volumes. He obviously isn't society's rendition of an altruistic hero - he's certainly no superman.  But that's not what saving someone is about, is it. It's about putting someone's needs above and beyond your own, and that is exactly what Mr. Ramsey did. Let's not demonize him for his past - we ALL have a past. Let's be thankful that on that fateful day, Mr. Ramsey didn't allow his past to dictate his present.

VerbalKarate 3 Like

You could not be more wrong. McDonald's got mentioned all day yesterday for sending that tweet. As for the domestic violence, the man was convicted and served his jail sentance for that crime. That does not diminish the heroism of helping these ladies in need when there is tons and tons of literature out there demonstrating how few people actually intervene when presented with the opportunity.