On May 26, members of the BTS Army will descend upon McDonald’s restaurants worldwide in droves, scrambling to get their hands on a 10-piece chicken nugget, medium fry, and medium Coke meal. Because the combo, complete with South Korean-inspired “Sweet Chili and Cajun dipping sauces,” isn’t a regular McDonald’s menu item; it’s BTS’s special meal, inspired by their own orders. Now stans of the K-pop group don’t just have to advertise their worship through merchandise or highly organized album streaming, they can eat like BTS too.
The celebrity fast-food order is having a moment. After McDonald’s debuted a meal for the rapper Travis Scott last September (featuring a Quarter Pounder with cheese and bacon, medium fries with a side of BBQ sauce, and a Sprite) along with merchandise, the order was so popular that participating locations ran out of key ingredients. “We’ve created a program that’s so compelling to our customers that it’s stretching our world-class supply chain,” the chain sent in a memo to employees. McDonald’s followed up the Scott meal with J Balvin’s in October, an intriguing combination of Big Mac (with no pickles), medium fries, and an Oreo McFlurry. Starting with Scott’s, the new meals are the first time McDonald’s has offered a celebrity menu item after the brand debuted the short-lived “McJordan Special” in the 1990s, a Quarter Pounder with bacon and barbecue sauce that was only sold in the Chicago area.
Right around the time Scott’s meal appeared at McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts dropped “The Charli,” a signature drink inspired by teenager Charli D’Amelio, the most followed person on TikTok. Based on her own order—cold brew coffee with whole milk and three pumps of caramel—the drink unsurprisingly became a sort of TikTok meme, which fans documenting their orders on the app. The company would later “remix” it, adding “cold foam” to the drink, whatever that means. Over at Chipotle, corporate took a tip from McDonald’s to offer a vegetarian Miley Cyrus-inspired burrito called the “Guac Is Extra But So Is Miley Burrito” and then a “Shawn Mendes bowl,” donating $1 for every bowl to Mendes’s foundation. And late last year Wendy’s teamed up with Uber Eats for a five-day “Never Stop Gaming” menu inspired by Twitch streamers that included various combinations of preexisting menu items. “When Tfue’s frying that’s what he’s ordering in,” the description read, for a 10-piece chicken nugget meal with fries and lemonade inspired by gamer Tfue’s real order. It turns out that using racial slurs on Twitch in the past definitely doesn’t keep you from getting shiny brand deals.
Looping in Twitch streamers and TikTok “talent” like Charli speaks to a transformation of what constitutes a worthwhile celebrity endorsement in the eyes of a generation that increasingly fawns over Youtubers and influencers the same way other people have put Hollywood actors on a pedestal. The idea of monetizing your personhood for a corporate brand has become increasingly normalized as “influencing” becomes more accessible to those even without millions of followers, to the point where some influencers even fake brand deals to seem more sponsored than they really are. For influencers who turn their lives into depressing products to be consumed, doing the same to their Wendy’s or Dunkin’ order is an especially lucrative version of what they do daily.
For musical artists, the trend also feels like an ephemeral extension of artist merchandise, a huge market that has moved far beyond band t-shirts and posters into knitwear, soap, candles, and puzzles. For the last decade the diversification of merch served an important role, as merchandise sales became integral to the chart success of an artist’s work due to trends in “bundling.” Artists would include albums with ticket or merch purchases, thereby boosting overall album sales. Last year Billboard officially changed chart rules that would keep albums “sold” with merchandise from being counted towards overall sales, but merch is still big, and the more exclusive the drop the more valuable it will be when someone inevitably tries to resell it later. ($3,000 Frank Ocean zine, anyone?)
The McDonald’s Scott and Balvin meals included a merchandise line (though Balvin’s was canceled) and it’s unclear if the BTS meal will offer merch as well, but the deals are incredibly lucrative for artists on their own; Scott reportedly made $20 million off his deal. Of course, there’s nothing valuable or re-sellable about a McDonald’s meal which, without the crucial, time-sensitive branding, falls apart in the paper bag as simply being just a regular shmegular fast food meal. Its value for a fan instead comes in being at the right place, at the right time, which takes more effort than simply pressing play on Spotify.
With celebrity meals fast food chains sell fans the idea that their local franchises are exclusive artist pop-up shops, faking a hypebeast culture that thrives off fans who prove their devotion to artists and brands by standing in line for hours to nab rare merch, flexing later by sharing the experience on social media. But instead of waiting in line for an exclusive new hoodie, fans wait in line for a box of nuggets. And while merchandise ultimately financially benefits the artist, and a band t-shirt exists as an emblem of one’s support for a musician, the celebrity meals extend the dismal idea that true fandom is one defined by purchases. In this case, the purchase is a cheeseburger you could get literally any other time.
Fast food restaurants are highly regimented, boring places. The curse and comfort of a place like McDonald’s is that every single McDonald’s in America (and for the most part, internationally) is exactly the same, and the menu has remained largely unchanged for decades. And yet despite the near uniformity of a fast-food restaurant, down to the fact that you can easily order entire meals off of a numbered grid, a fast-food order can still seem highly personal. You’re either a pinto or a black bean person, soft taco or crunchy, a McNugget or a burger gal. Do you exasperate baristas with your extra caramel, no whipped cream, mocha frappuccino with cookie crumbles, or are you the angel who gets a coffee black?
It’s why the celebrity meal order projects an illusion of intimacy moreso than a typical celebrity endorsement, despite being a clear marketing gimmick. (Nobody really believes that all SEVEN members of BTS have the same McDonald’s order, right?) Celebrity endorsements and starring roles in commercials have endured for decades, from the Pittsburgh Steelers’ “Mean” Joe Green appearing in a ’70s Coca-Cola ad to Ringo Starr appearing in a Pizza Hut commercial in the 1990s (despite having never had pizza due to a litany of allergies). But the specificity of a meal being modeled off a celebrity’s actual order treats celebrity like a state of being accessible through a simple purchase. The meals being new pairings of pre-existing menu items might seem at first like a hindrance, these deals failing to approximate the exclusivity of a cool new food item. But the average meals stress that despite their fame, a celebrity in a McDonald’s has to choose from the same menu you do. Yes, even BTS.