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The inside story of how a 25.5g sachet of Szechuan sauce caused collective madness

Fans, scalpers, and psychologists reveal what really happened when McDonald’s released a Rick and Morty-themed packet of sauce. 

In 1998, when McDonald’s first released their Szechuan teriyaki dipping sauce, they could never have imagined that 19 years later it would lead to riots.

On 7 October 2017, police were called as protests grew outside McDonald’s restaurants across the United States. “We want sauce!” chanted the crowds, who had come to McDonald’s to receive a limited edition re-release packet of the Szechuan dipping sauce. In some restaurants, hundreds of people were met with the news that staff only had 20 packets of sauce. In response, one grown man jumped on the counter and screamed, before writhing on the floor and running away.

“The restaurant was getting super crowded,” says Kalia Calhoun, a 29-year-old account manager who queued for the sauce in New York. “There were probably about 100 or so people that I could see in the store and someone said the line was out the door and hundreds more crowded around the entrance and down the block.”

The manager of the McDonald’s gave the first 50 people in line a card with which they could claim their sauce – Kalia was number 13. “Someone offered me $60 [£45] for my card,” she says. A video has since emerged of a man selling the sauce for $10 (£7) per single dip.

These crowds were not condiment enthusiasts, but fans of the hit Adult Swim cartoon Rick and Morty. In an April episode of the show, the titular character Rick ranted about his desire to try the sauce again (it was discontinued in 1998 as it was only released to promote Disney’s Mulan). Now, McDonald’s had released the sauce for Rick and Morty fans, but vastly underestimated just how many of them there were.

“One person came by with nuggets and asked if we were getting sauce and if we were going to open it. He said he drove 2 hours and 45 minutes and if we got it, could he could dunk one nugget in,” says Lewis Creech, a 25-year-old from Virginia who manged to get a packet of the sauce after driving to two McDonald’s and queuing for two and a half hours.

What motivates people to spend time, money, and energy getting their hands on a pop culture packet of sauce (net weight, 25.5g)? Why did eBay bids for a singular packet of Szechuan reach thousands of pounds? Are Rick and Morty fans especially awful?

“Having something [from pop culture] cross over into real life is very powerful – like being able to drink Butterbeer from Harry Potter,” explains Will Brooker, a professor of cultural studies at Kingston University and the author of multiple books on fandom behaviour. “It offers fans a sense of close involvement and participation in a fictional world and by extension makes the fiction feel more real.”

Lewis agrees. He says the atmosphere in McDonald’s was “like a comic convention”, with fans watching the show on their phones and discussing their favourite episodes. “Everyone was excited.” But it was this excitement, and the rarity of the event, which meant that emotions ran high when the sauce ran low. “One person told me they drove down from Maryland. A woman was distraught,” says Lewis.

“The fact that it’s something as small and apparently silly as sauce – sachets of inauthentic, mass-produced plum and soy sauce that have nothing to do with Szechuan – doesn’t matter. It becomes a focus for that combined fandom,” explains Brooker.

Brooker blames McDonald’s, rather than the fans, for the scenes that escalated. Because the fast food restaurant only released limited amounts of the sauce (they have since promised to bring out more), Brooker says they created an “economy of sauce” which replicated real-world power imbalance.

“They basically created a new version of the real economy where some lucky, elite people were given the sauce, and less fortunate people had to travel, and wait, and discover that there was none left… that reproduces exactly the frustrations and unfairness of everyday life for most people.”

These frustrations have now been widely mocked online. Rick and Morty fans are already some of the most maligned on the internet, with the AV Club calling them “self-congratulating, smug, and, worst of all, mobilised” and a popular meme mocking their superiority complexes. Most recently, they were condemned by the show’s creator, Dan Harmon, after hurling sexist insults at its female writers.

A meme mocking the fans

“I really do enjoy the show a lot… but don’t really want to be associated with lunatics,” says Isaac Rockett, a 31-year-old from Texas who removed a Rick and Morty bumper sticker from his car after the weekend’s events. After the near-riots and protests about the sauce (some individuals even threatened to sue McDonald’s), Rick and Morty fans now seem to be universally hated online. This has led fans like Isaac to downplay their love of the cartoon: “I’m a huge fan of the show, and absolutely still am. But I’ll probably talk about it and recommend it a little less from now on.”

The actions of crowds undoubtedly marred the event – but not everyone in these crowds was a Rick and Morty fan. Since the weekend, stories emerged of the sauce selling for thousands of dollars on eBay, and many went to McDonald’s with the express purpose of getting the sauce to sell on. Many that then paid extortionate prices for the sauce on eBay weren’t actually crazed fans either, but people who hoped to profit by selling it on again. John Braun, a 17-year-old from the United States, is one of these people.

“I’m what they call a ‘scalper’ I guess,” says John, referring to the term for a person who buys and resells things (usually tickets) in order to make a profit. “I buy anything I think I can make money off of selling for a higher price, which mostly ends up being sneakers and clothes, but other stuff occasionally when I see the opportunity.” John bid $80 (£60) for a single packet of the sauce on eBay. “I thought it was a good deal that could potentially see me profit an excess of a few hundred dollars down the road once market demand picked up and quantity dipped due to consumption,” he explains.

John’s plan didn’t work out, as the eBay seller cancelled the auction in the hopes of earning more money. Both John and the seller are out of luck now that McDonald’s is releasing more sauce, but their initial attempts may have been misguided. There is as of yet no proof that any Rick and Morty fan actually paid thousands of dollars for a single sachet of sauce after winning an auction, a fact many stories about “insane” eBay prices miss. Listing the sauce on eBay for $1000 does not make it worth $1000 – and does not mean anyone will actually buy it. Though a bottle of the sauce went for £12,000 on eBay back in August, the two highest bidders ultimately refused to pay.

Kalia – the woman who was offered $60 for her place in the queue – illustrates the complexity of fan motivations. As a huge fan of Rick and Morty, she went to McDonald’s with the intention of tasting the sauce, but listed it on eBay when she realised the profit she could make. “There were no benefits to me not selling it, the fact I got one and got an Instagram photo and fan bragging rights out of it was enough for me.” She reached $130 (£98) in bids, which stopped when McDonald’s announced they are releasing more of the sauce.

“At the end of the day it's a McDonald's sauce pack worth probably 10 cents if that, my friends and I had a laugh over it,” she says.

Lewis, the man from Virginia, similarly decided to sell his Szechuan sauce. “I had the intention of eating it originally… [but] I put it on eBay because the prices were getting really high.” He expected $50 but bids have now reached more than $150. There is a chance that his bidder will no longer pay.

“I’m not really stressed out about it. I'm just enjoying this unique experience and had a good time ultimately in acquiring the sauce. That's what I will remember from this, the pretty crazy day and experience.”

It seems as though the complex psychology behind fandoms, and that behind limited-edition promotions, combined to create a frantic day. Perhaps, the psychology of Rick and Morty fans only added to this, as Isaac – the man who no longer wants to be associated with the fandom – calls Rick and Morty fans who use Reddit “damaged individuals”.

But media psychologist Dr Karen Dill-Shackleford, as well as Brooker, believe we shouldn’t consider the incident unique to Rick and Morty fans. “People often accuse fans of being out of touch with reality, but my take is that reality is a lot more fluid than we often think,” she says.

“So, driving to a McDonalds to get Szechuan sauce packets may seem like a waste of time, but think of it this way: it’s a chance to bring something you love off the screen and into the world. It’s a chance to hang out with people who love what you love. It’s a chance to post on social media the pictures of your adventures. It’s almost like a video game.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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People are not prepared to see innovation at any price - we need to take care of our digital health

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

As individuals, we have never been better connected. As a society, we are being driven further apart.

Doteveryone’s People Power and Technology report, released this week, found that half of the 2,500 British people we surveyed said the internet had made life a lot better for people like them - but only 12 per cent saw a very positive impact on society.

These findings won’t be news to most people living in Brexit Britain - or to anyone who’s been involved in a spat on Twitter. The fact that we’re constantly connected to our smartphones has not necessarily improved our communities or our understanding of one other, and the trails of data we’re leaving behind are not turning into closer social bonds.

Many of the positives we experience are for ourselves as individuals.

Lots of consumer tech puts simple self-sufficiency first - one-click to buy, swipe right to date - giving us a feeling of cosy isolation and making one little phone an everywhere. This powerful individualism is a feature of all of the big platforms - and even social networks like Facebook and Twitter, that are meant bring us together, do so in the context of personalised recommendations and algorithmically ordered timelines.

We are all the centre of our own digital worlds. So it is no surprise that when we do look up from our phones, we feel concerned about the impact on society. Our research findings articulate the dilemma we face: do we do the thing that is easiest for us, or the one that is better for society?

For instance, 78 per cent of people see the Internet as helping us to communicate better, but 68 per cent also feel it makes us less likely to speak to each other face-to-face. 69per cent think the internet helps businesses to sell their products and services, while 53 per cent think it forces local shops to compete against larger companies online.

It’s often hard to see the causality in these trade-offs. At what point does my online shopping tip my high street into decline? When do I notice that I’ve joined another WhatsApp group but haven’t said hello to my neighbour?

When given clear choices, the public was clear in its response.  

We asked how they would feel if an online retailer offered free one-day delivery for lower income families, but this resulted in local shops closing down - 69 per cent found this unacceptable. Or if their bank invested more in combating fraud and cyber crime, but closed their local branch - 61 per cent said it was unacceptable. Or if their council made savings by putting services online and cut council tax as a result, but some people would find it hard to access these services - 56 per cent found it unacceptable.

It seems people are not prepared to see innovation at any price - and not at the expense of their local communities. The poorest find these trade offs least acceptable.

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

A clearer regulatory environment would support positive, responsible change that supports our society, not just the ambition of a few corporations.

Some clarity about our relationship with web services would be a good start. 60 per cent of people Doteveryone spoke to believed there should be an independent body they can turn to when things go wrong online; 89 per cent would like terms and conditions to be clearer, and 47% feel they have no choice but to sign up to services, even when they have concerns.

Technology regulation is complicated and fragmentary. Ofcom and the under-resourced Information Commissioner’s Office, provide some answers,but they are not sufficient to regulate the myriad effects of social media, let alone the changes that new technologies like self-driving cars will bring. There needs to be a revolution in government, but at present as consumers and citizens we can’t advocate for that. We need a body that represents us, listens to our concern and gives us a voice.

And the British public also needs to feel empowered, so we can all make better choices - adults and children alike need different kinds of understanding and capability to navigate the digital world. It is not about being able to code: it is about being able to cope.

Public Health England exists to protect and improve the nation’s health and well-being, and reduce health inequalities. Perhaps we need a digital equivalent, to protect and improve our digital health and well-being, and reduce digital inequalities.

As a society, we should not have to continually respond and adapt to the demands of the big corporations: we should also make demands of them - and we need confidence, a voice, and representation to begin to do that.

Rachel Coldicutt is chief executive of Doteveryone.