In this edition of Lon Harris’ weekly Passionfruit column, we’re exploring what creators can learn from the Grimace Shake and its brand-manufactured virality.
The early days of social media, when it was still referred to as “Web 2.0” by branding-obsessed tech heads, were marked by near-constant “viral trends.” Marketing consultants and creatives frequently complained about being asked for pitches guaranteed to “go viral,” as if word-of-mouth popularity could be predicted via algorithm.
In the early 2000s, virality concentrated on one or two breakout apps — like Facebook and Myspace. Now, things are more compartmentalized and niche. Tens of millions of Gen Zers might blow up a video on TikTok (or a YouTube video about “Roblox”). At the same time, those topics remain a complete mystery to their Twitter and Facebook obsessive aunts and uncles. The internet has grown large enough that everyone has a little corner (or bubble) to hang out in, where they can fixate on whatever they please.
Still, every rare once in a while, a trend gains so much momentum it achieves the platform version of escape velocity and genuinely enters mainstream pop culture. So if you’re 40 or above, this might be the first time you hear about the Grimace Shake, but it won’t be the last. For any younger readers, it’s old news.
Thank You Berry Much
Recall Grimace, the friendly, purple McDonald’s mascot first introduced in 1971 who, you may be surprised to learn, is actually supposed to be a sentient taste bud. All of summer 2023, the fast food chain commemorates the character’s 52nd birthday. He took over the McDonald’s social media accounts. He is featured in a variety of newly-introduced McDonald’s merch. And, of course, he got his own meal, which comes with a choice of Big Mac or chicken nuggets, a medium side of fries, and a purple berry-flavored shake: The Grimace Shake.
On TikTok, the shake inspired creators to post videos parodying horror films, in which they enjoy a Grimace Shake, followed by the eerie, inexplicable, or even downright terrifying results. These include gruesome death, developing supernatural abilities, off-screen massacres, and other devastating consequences typically reserved for Blumhouse horror movies.
The trend started with a creator going by the screen name “Fraz.” His original Grimace Shake clip of him dying from consuming the purple beverage now has over 10 million views. Fraz wasn’t motivated by some grand marketing design or agenda. By his own account, he was just reacting to the milkshake’s unconventional color.
In a fascinating turnabout, Fraz admitted to Indy 100 that he borrowed the concept from another video where someone pretended to die from taking a bite of Burger King’s bright-red “Spider-Verse” burger. (Which, of course, promotes this summer’s big animated feature, “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.”)
“I saw a guy do it with the burger where he took a bite, and the next scene was him in the hospital. So I was like, ‘Let’s do something similar,’” Fraz told Indy 100.
Grimace Is a Tool of The Man
But here’s the thing: while this trend might seem organic, it’s not really organic at all. It’s manufactured virality. It’s explicitly sponsored by McDonald’s in the hope that the classic Grimace character — with his unconventional color scheme, his weird googly eyes, his Gritty-like zaniness, and the fact that he’s supposed to be a taste bud — is going to strike people as goofy and “lol so random” enough to hold attention for five minutes in the digital age.
While companies have always tried to get in on social media trends, old-school virality was more grassroots than it is today. The entire concept of virality implies it stems from the ground up, an egalitarian decision made silently by the audience with their clicks and eyeballs. Out of all the content created, some weird trends captured the most attention, earned the most views, and alerted the website or app’s algorithm to share it more widely.
In the early days of YouTube, big viral moments like Charlie Bit My Finger or David After Dentist were King. Even viral moments involving brands or corporations — like when the monkey in a coat was spotted in IKEA or weird local commercials caught the internet’s eye — didn’t feel like they were designed in a boardroom specifically to promote a new campaign or product. The monkey just happened to be in IKEA the day someone got their phone out to snap his picture, and local commercials just happened to be laughable.
Without making any sort of value judgments, things have absolutely changed. It’s a bit hard to even think of a recent major viral trend on YouTube or TikTok or Instagram that an ad agency didn’t design.
Old Man Yells At Cloud
Even sketch comedy and late-night clips have changed. In the early days of YouTube, viewers would repost moments that struck a chord with them. But now, the whole late-night scene is designed around coming up with viral clips that will play well on TikTok and YouTube. “I Think You Should Leave,” Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show,” and “Saturday Night Live” are meme factories that just happen to air on television or stream on Netflix.
Plainly, there’s no reversing this trend entirely. The internet just became too popular. There’s too much money in using it to sell people the latest video games, makeup products, Shein clothes, sugary cereals, and Happy Meals.
Consider 8-year-old Tariq, who went viral last summer as the “Corn Kid” after sharing his favorite aspects of the tasty treat with the interview series “Recess Therapy.” While in a previous internet generation, Corn Kid memes would’ve filled up the Reddit front page and perhaps inspired a parody song by the Gregory Brothers before exiting stage left-click, today, he became a legitimate digital business overnight.
In the year since he went viral, Tariq amassed nearly 1 million followers on TikTok, while also joining Cameo, attending the Los Angeles premiere of Disney’s live-action “Pinocchio” film, starring in an ad for Chipotle, and appearing in segments for both “The Drew Barrymore Show” and Nickelodeon’s “Kid’s Choice Awards.”
Grimace’s Lessons For Creators
Clearly, we’ll never go back to the days when everyone would fixate on the Double Rainbow Guy (R.I.P.) for 48 hours, then move on without ever commodifying him or his catchphrase. Still, what we’ve lost is worth noting, and there’s also a lesson for creators. Authenticity and individuality still matter, even in our massively corporatized internet.
The Grimace Shake didn’t become a global phenomenon because TikTokers went on their feeds reading a script, praising its fresh berry flavor. The trend’s appeal is rooted in its tinge of humor, danger, and inappropriateness. Creators are saying that drinking the shake inspires madness.
Still, clearly, McDonald’s doesn’t mind. We’re talking about their silly milkshake right now, and no one really believes it will turn your brain to jelly like you just made eye contact with one of HP Lovecraft’s Old Ones.
This kind of attention is golden. There’s enough distance from a truly branded corporate-style message that sharing a Grimace Shake video doesn’t feel like being on McDonald’s street team and helping them promote their new food items.
That’s the exact sweet spot for corporate messaging.