The scenes on social media are grisly. A body dangles out of the trunk of a sedan, dribbling purple goo. Another is draped across a basketball hoop with a net that has been stained lilac. A third splutters in a bathtub covered in dusky handprints.
The liquid splashed across these tableaus is not blood. It is an extremely purple milkshake from McDonald’s.
The social media reaction has come about in recent weeks since McDonald’s released the Grimace Shake as part of the Grimace Birthday Meal, a menu item that highlights a purple, bloblike supporting player to the brand’s signature clown, Ronald McDonald. The limited-edition beverage has become a key ingredient in a TikTok trend in which users concoct elaborate horror scenes — with Grimace as the implied assassin.
Each video begins with a TikTok user pretending to give an upbeat review of the shake. It then cuts to a shot of the person doused in the beverage — sometimes appearing dead, other times zombified — to flickering lights and eerie music.
Might McDonald’s be concerned that people are pretending to drown themselves in one of its products? Or painting one of its mascots as a murderer? Probably not, said Jonah Berger, an associate professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
“This is free advertising,” he said. “It’s not only raising awareness of the brand, but it makes the brand cooler among a key demographic, which is young people.”
McDonald’s acknowledged the trend Wednesday in posts on TikTok and Twitter. The company did not respond to a request for comment.
The first of the videos to gain traction was posted June 13 by Austin Frazier, a 28-year-old social media manager in Knoxville, Tenn., who is not associated with McDonald’s. While scrolling on TikTok, he came across a video of the food blogger Wayne Dang sampling the shake.
Inspiration struck. He drove to McDonald’s and ordered one. Then, he filmed himself wishing Grimace a happy birthday and taking a sip. Next, he lay down on his kitchen floor and instructed his wife to transform the area into “a crime scene,” using the shake as blood.
“She put a little bit on my mouth and a little bit on the ground,” he said. “I was like, no, you’ve got to dump the whole thing.” Mr. Frazier added that McDonald’s has not contacted him since the trend took off. “They owe me a fat check for all the shakes that they’ve sold,” he joked.
Many fast-food brands have released stunt items that seem designed for social sharing, like Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos taco and Pizza Hut’s hot-dog stuffed-crust pizza. In 2020, McDonald’s released a meal in collaboration with Travis Scott that caused an online frenzy.
The Grimace Shake was quite likely another play for online attention, said Jared Watson, an assistant professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business. The shake is a shocking color, and its flavor is not defined by the company, making it ripe for debate.
TikTok users injected their own absurdist twist. “Part of that trend is an act of rebellion,” Dr. Watson said. “They’re saying, We see what you’re doing, and we’re going to take it in an entirely different direction than you expected.”
The shake has introduced many younger customers to Grimace, a character with a perpetually cheerful, or hapless, expression. He seems less well known than his fellows, Hamburglar and Mayor McCheese, and his identity has been something of a mystery since his first appearance in the 1970s. In 2012, the company said Grimace was “the embodiment of a milkshake.” Others have argued that Grimace is a giant taste bud.
Dylan Zitkus, 18, a content creator in Chicago, said he had not heard of Grimace before seeing the TikTok videos. He bought a large Grimace Shake for the purpose of participating in the trend.
“I didn’t want to do it at first, because you have to put the milkshake all over you,” said Mr. Zitkus, who described himself as lactose-intolerant. “It’s cold. It’s unpleasant.”
He said he gave in after seeing other Grimace Shake videos surpass five million views. He put on a white shirt and went to a park with a friend around 1 a.m. The video did not take long to film, but it did take a while to clean up.
“My neighbor saw me and was like, ‘What are you doing?’” Mr. Zitkus said. “I’m like, long story.”