The Fast-Food Yuck Seen 'Round the World

Wendy's Frosty gross-out
Wendy's Frosty gross-out

This past week, Wendy’s joined a growing list of fast-food establishments whose employees betrayed them through their immature – usually disgusting – antics. In the latest incident, a photo depicts a guy kneeling in front of a Frosty machine to enjoy the frozen dairy dessert “straight from the tap.”


He joins the Taco Bell shell licker, Burger King lettuce stomper, McDonald’s iced-tea spitter, and Domino’s mucous blower as a distinguished member of the fast food hall of shame.

Quadruple yuck.

You'd have to be pretty naive to believe that these sophomoric shenanigans haven't been happening for decades. It’s only recently, however, that the social web has propelled them to public prominence in short order.

Our online connections can quickly escalate an isolated HR incident to a full-blown PR crisis (while elevating some minimum-wage-earning putz to the status of Internet sensation).

The events typically follow a common pattern:

1. Conduct childish (often unsanitary) prank.

2. Capture said moment on closest mobile device(s).

3. Share image and/or video on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit or any number of other free social platforms.

4. Await viral magic, which may lead to mainstream news coverage and a barrage of chatter about the incident.

The corporate responses follow a somewhat predictable pattern as well, although the level of urgency can vary.

Some brands immediately spring to action to publicly denounce the incident and actively confront the potential fallout.

Others try a low-key approach, hoping the hoopla passes quickly and quietly.

All characterize the incident as isolated and insist they are taking serious measures to ensure something similar never happens again. This inevitably involves the firing of the perpetrator(s).

And while the long-term negative impact of these embarrassments may be negligible, they certainly don’t help build goodwill or loyalty among customers.

Probably most frustrating for the corporate victims of these viral pranks is that they live in perpetuity (i.e. FOREVER), thanks to the proficiency of GoogleBing and the Library of Congress.

Moving Beyond Fast Food

While the fast-food industry is uniquely challenged by its largely transient, immature workforce, it is by no means alone in facing the risks of online embarrassment.

Whether or not a business chooses to actively engage on social media, its employees have all the raw materials they will ever need to inflict serious brand damage. So do its customers, vendors, partners, competitors and naysayers.

And no social media policy and protocols – however sophisticated or well-intentioned – are influential enough to stop the wrath (or naiveté or immaturity) of employees and others who interact with a business.

Which means that every business in every industry faces a potential online 'gotcha' at any time. This incident may come in the form of a blatant safety infraction on a jobsite, a spur-of-the-moment rant, or the shocking disrespect of a customer.

Although there’s no magic force field to prevent embarrassing incidents from attacking, there are some basic principles that serve an organization well in navigating the current online realities:

KFC mashed potato licker
KFC mashed potato licker
- Hire well.
- Train well.
- Trust well.
- Plan well.
- Respond well.
- Learn and adapt as you go.