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Last year, in the first episode of her short-lived CBS sitcom The Crazy Ones, the ad executive played by Sarah Michelle Gellar is forced to sing the classic McDonald’s jingle “You Deserve a Break Today” in a crowded restaurant to convince Kelly Clarkson to perform the song in a commercial so her agency can retain the lucrative McDonald’s account. The irony of the scene is that Gellar is supposedly banned for life from the fast-food chain after McDonald’s sued the actress when she was a little girl. Is that true, though?
The story gained wide acceptance earlier this year when TMZ ran a story on the subject, with Gellar seemingly confirming the story (on the way to her car after leaving a restaurant). The story consists of basically three parts:
1. Gellar was involved with Burger King commercials that, for the first time ever, showed a company calling out a competitor by name
2. Burger King and Gellar were then sued by McDonald’s over the ads
3. The lawsuit was settled and Gellar was banned from McDonald’s for life
The ad campaign launched by Burger King in fall 1982 (when Gellar was 5 years old, by the way; most versions of the story have her as 4, or the commercials airing in 1981) wasn’t the first time a company referred to a competitor by name in a commercial. However, it was the first time one of the three big hamburger chains (McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s) had gone that route. Companies tend to be wary about mentioning competitors for fear of being sued. In this instance, McDonald’s did just that, seeking an injunction in federal court to prevent Burger King from debuting a new series of ads, specifically one starring the young Gellar explaining that Burger King burgers were 20 percent larger than McDonald’s burgers\, and that Burger King “flame broiled” their burgers while McDonald’s “fried” theirs. Here’s the ad in question:
McDonald’s position was that the commercials were misleading, claiming that Burger King did not necessarily broil its burgers, but often steamed them or used a microwave. McDonald’s also took issue with Burger King’s ads asserting the Whopper defeated the Big Mac in a taste test. McDonald’s wanted the court to force Burger King to reveal how the taste tests were handled.
The injunction was denied, but the legal case continued (Wendy’s then also sued over the taste test claim, because Burger King gave out bumper stickers touting its “victory” over McDonald’s and Wendy’s).
Gellar was named in the McDonald’s lawsuit, and had to testify about claims like “That’s why I eat at Burger King instead of McDonald’s.” It appeared as if McDonald’s was trying to win the case by harassment more than anything, as it was a stretch to brand a little girl’s statements as an actress in a commercial “misleading.”
The case settled by the end of the year (Burger King had already received a sales bump so the company figured it wasn’t worth continuing), and Burger King pulled the offending ads. Gellar continued to appear in Burger King ads, doing roughly 30 spots for the company.
Now as to whether she was banned from McDonald’s … she was not.
The crazy thing is that the source of all of these stories is an interview Gellar gave to a British newspaper in 2004 where she opens up by saying:
“Banned is a strong word,” she begins, a little defensively. “When I was five I did a commercial for Burger King.” It was the first ad in the States to name and shame a rival. “McDonald’s were so outraged, they sued Burger King and named me in the lawsuit. I wasn’t allowed to eat there. It was tough because, when you’re a little kid, McDonald’s is where all your friends have their birthday parties, so I missed out on a lot of apple pies.”
She says right off the top that she wasn’t really banned. It was just a matter of a little girl starring in a famous commercial knocking McDonald’s would not then go to the restaurant. Gellar spoke to David Letterman about the issue, as well, and there she phrased it in that manner — that she would still go to McDonald’s as a kid but she would be worried about being recognized as the face of Burger King. She would wear a hat or dark glasses.
I’m sure Gellar got a kick out of it years later when she was starring on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and they did an entire episode in which her character works at a fast-food restaurant (it’s not very flattering to burger chains).
The legend is…
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