McDonald's gives free 'Thank You Meals' to first responders in latest coronavirus push

Spots from Wieden + Kennedy N.Y. include one going back to when healthcare professionals and other frontline workers were kids

Published On
Apr 21, 2020

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McDonald’s is devoting its next two weeks of advertising to Thank You Meals, its new push to give free meals to first responders, and its biggest coronavirus pandemic-related marketing move to date, sending a strong signal that COVID-19-related efforts are not slowing down in the restaurant industry.

Thank You Meals will be backed by two national TV commercials, as well as online, email, menu-board and in-app marketing, the world’s largest restaurant chain announced Tuesday. McDonald’s is doing the national giveaways after being inspired by franchisees giving food to first responders and doing other community outreach on their own, McDonald’s USA President Joe Erlinger told reporters on a conference call.

From April 22 to May 5, healthcare workers, firefighters, paramedics and police officers can show their work ID at any McDonald’s in the U.S. and choose a free meal, including items such as an Egg McMuffin, hash browns and a drink for breakfast, or a Double Cheeseburger, fries and a drink for lunch or dinner. Thank You Meals are set to be served in the chain’s Happy Meal boxes, with a thank you note in place of the toy, Erlinger said.

McDonald’s already had coronavirus-related ads running including “Still the Same,” which showed people eating its food while social distancing, and “Lights On” which shows the lights turning on at McDonald’s as a reminder that nearly all of its U.S. restaurants are open. Now, McDonald’s is shifting all of its media to Thank You Meals, McDonald’s USA Chief Marketing Officer Morgan Flatley told reporters. All of the company’s paid, owned and earned messaging for the next two weeks will focus on this effort, she said. 

One of the two spots promoting the effort puts a nostalgic twist on the current plethora of montage spots, showing childhood photos of current first responders enjoying the PlayPlace, a birthday party or a meal at McDonald’s, before showing the nurses, firefighters and other first responders in their present-day uniforms. The voiceover in the “Grown Brave” spot includes references to “the frontline,” “masks” and “six feet.”

The other spot, “Most Important Meals,” shows a McDonald’s staffer putting the letters up on an outdoor sign to inform first responders about the free meals. Both spots end by saying “it’s our honor to serve you.” The campaign comes from Wieden & Kennedy New York, McDonald's national creative agency.


For now, the program will run from April 22 through May 5, but “we will certainly explore bringing something else back based on the results of this,” Flatley said.

The push comes as fast food chains, most notably McDonald’s as it is the largest restaurant chain, have faced protests about remaining open at a time when the nation is largely shut down, and for possibly putting staffers at risk, including when they offer free food to drive people to the restaurants. Taco Bell has had multiple days with free taco giveaways, and Wendy’s announced its “GroupNug” effort, giving free four-piece orders of its chicken nuggets away in the drive-thru on April 24. 

Erlinger told reporters that McDonald’s has been working on getting masks and other protective gear to distribute to restaurants and has put 50 new processes in place since the rise of this pandemic, such as wellness and temperature checks. He said that McDonald’s needs 900,000 masks nationwide per day. Earlier this week, the company said it had secured 100 million non-medical grade masks so far. Erlinger also said McDonald’s is also starting to require the use of protective shields at drive-thru and front counters, moves that have already been implemented at places such as many grocery store checkout lanes.

Every franchisee said yes to the program, with unanimous votes in favor of the effort from all of the 56 U.S. co-ops, Atlanta Franchisee Vicki Chancellor, who is chair of the McDonald's Operator's National Advertising Committee, told reporters. The company and its franchisees are splitting the cost of the effort.

McDonald’s announcement included a statement from Dr. William Jaquis, president of The American College of Emergency Physicians, who called the effort “a much-appreciated gesture for those risking their lives each day to take a break with a hot meal amidst the turbulence.”