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The McRib is a toxic boyfriend, and we need to stop backsliding

(Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

If the McRib were our collective boyfriend, everyone would be telling us to ditch him. When someone repeatedly threatens to leave, but then keeps showing up, isn’t that a toxic relationship? (I mean, our friends and cardiologists might tell us he’s bad for us in other ways, but let’s stick with the trust issues here for a minute.)

That’s the case with the Golden Arches’ pork sandwich, a special that the fast-food chain periodically brings back to its menu. This year, it’s hyping the return on Oct. 31 as the cult classic’s “Farewell Tour.” In-store posters bearing an image of a juicy sandwich have a dire warning for fans: “This could be your last bite.”

The McRib is back at McDonald’s, and after a taste, I still don’t get its cult appeal

Forgive us for not buying, not even for a second, that 2022 truly marks the impending demise of the barbecue-sauce-slathered, onion-topped menu item that’s come in and out of our lives since 1980. We have good reason to be jaded — we’ve heard it all before. Back in 2005, McDonald’s heralded the routine appearance of the sandwich as the “McRib Farewell Tour,” but at least back then, they indicated that if its fans spoke loudly enough (oh yeah, and if they bought enough of the things), they would keep it around.

AdWeek reported at the time on the marketing campaign accompanying the sandwich’s alleged swan song, in which customers could vote on whether it would stay or get put to the virtual pasture. “At the McRib Web site, users can find out where and when McDonald’s is serving McRibs, get McRib trivia, write McRib haikus, submit their own McRib photos, download official McRib T-shirt decals and even send an urgent phone message to fellow McRib fans,” the industry publication wrote.

Just a year later, McDonald’s was at it again. The “McRib Farewell Tour II,” launched Oct. 30, 2006, was the sequel that everyone saw coming. “There was such a huge show of support for the McRib last year that we decided to bring it back,” Jerome Elenez, a regional marketing director for McDonald’s, said in a news release at the time. “We are excited to promote the ‘McRib Farewell Tour II’ and give our loyal McRib customers one last chance to enjoy the savory sandwich.”

The same news release also swore that “after this limited time offer, McRib will be retired from the McDonald’s menu forever.” Riight. The fast food chain accompanied rereleases with nostalgia-heavy campaigns, according to researchers from the University of Dayton who tracked its marketing. “In 2010 and 2011, promotions were themed around the ‘history’ of the product: ‘Legend of the McRib’ and Facebook-based ‘The Quest for the Golden McRib,’” they noted.

This time, we’re older and wiser (though the return of early-aughts low-rise denim might suggest otherwise), and fans are seeing through the ruse. Many likened the 2022 McRib campaign to the hype (and ticket sales) that so many bands have created by announcing their own farewell tours. Among them were Kiss and the Rolling Stones.

If you dig into the fine print, it’s obvious that the marketing wizards aren’t absolutely closing the door to future returns of the McRib, which are certain to be hailed as triumphant, back-from-the-brink revivals. Per this campaign’s news release: “Like any true farewell tour, we’re hoping this isn’t a ‘goodbye’ but a ‘see you later.’ Because as our McRib stans have experienced time and time again: you never know when — or if — the McRib is coming back.”

But they sure want customers to think this is a final goodbye.

The tactic — which relies on real or perceived scarcity to drive demand — is on the rise in the fast-food arena, perhaps inspired by the kind of frenzies that accompany limited-edition sneaker drops and streetwear brands like Supreme that command high prices merely by offering tiny supplies. Taco Bell often employs it; its handling of the popular Mexican Pizza was seen by fans as a marketing stunt.

And although many fans took the latest McRib news with a dose of sodium befitting the sandwich, some were just worried enough that maybe this time, it was for real, which is what McDonald’s seems to be banking on.