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.”