McDonald's Pit Bull Ad: Why the Outcry?

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Earlier this week a fast-food advertisement for chicken nuggets roused the ire of many dog owners across the country and set off a firestorm.

The ad has pit bull owners howling in protest over what they see as an unfair characterization of pit bulls as vicious animals, because petting them is riskier than trying a new menu item.

According to an Associated Press article,

The radio ad for Chicken McBites only ran for a few days in the Kansas City area before the complaints started. The campaign against the ad circulated on social media sites, and the apology was delivered the same way. …"I found it extremely offensive and reckless," said Rachele Lizarraga of Sacramento. … Lizarraga, who owns a pet-sitting business and is social media coordinator for Chako Pit Bull Rescue, started a Facebook page called "Pit Bulls Against McDonald's," launched an online petition calling for an end to the ad and started one of many Twitter threads. Many of the 8,200-plus people who liked the Facebook page said an apology wasn't enough — they wanted a donation to some pit bull organizations and a McDonald's ad featuring a pit bull.

The ad was quickly pulled, and a McDonald's spokeswoman issued a statement of apology, saying that "it's never our intent to offend anyone." Dog advocates celebrated the victory, but a closer look at the commercial reveals that the critics may have been barking up the wrong tree.

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Pit bulls weren't the only thing that the McDonald's ad compared the risk to. Here's what the commercial script said: "Trying a brand-new menu item at McDonald's isn't risky. You know what's risky? Petting a stray pit bull. Or shaving your head just to see how it would look … that's risky. Naming your son 'Sue' — super risky. Giving your friends your Facebook password? Ultra-risky!"

So, contrary to the pit bull advocates' claims, the ad is actually not singling out pit bulls as being especially dangerous — instead it's satirically debunking that idea.

It's not clear why outraged pit bull owners took the commercial literally, but since they did, it's fair to point out that the risk comparison the ad makes is true and accurate: Eating chicken nuggets really is safer than all the things mentioned.

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The fact is that petting stray pit bulls — or any other unknown dogs — is indeed risky. It's never a good idea to put your hand on an animal that belongs to someone else or may be wild. This is Dog Safety 101, as the ASPCA notes in its guidelines.

The protesters misunderstood the commercial's message, which stated that pit bulls are no more risky than other ordinary and harmless activities — and in fact less dangerous than naming a boy Sue, and far less risky than giving your friends your Facebook password.

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg didn’t issue a statement defending the safety of his site and demanding an apology from McDonald's. So why the furor?

Much of it has to do with the fact that pit bull owners feel their beloved breeds have been unfairly maligned in the public mind as vicious animals. And they have a point.

How Dangerous Are Pit Bulls?

Petting a stray pit bull really is more risky than eating chicken nuggets. But how much more risky? Brian Dunning, a researcher and host of Skeptoid, a podcast that examines controversial claims from a scientific, evidence-based perspective, looked into the fear over pit bulls. He found that

Deaths by dog attack have been thoroughly studied. Perhaps the most often cited large study was published in 2000 in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medicine Association assessing 20 years of dog bite related fatalities in the United States, from 1979 through 1998. During that period, 238 Americans were killed by 403 dogs. Just over half of these deaths involved pit bull type dogs and Rottweilers. … Pit bulls are involved in a disproportionately high number of fatal versus non-fatal attacks, though this number is still extremely small. Pit bulls do tend to bite and hold, displaying an amazing ability to not release their grip. This has given rise to the rumor — which is completely false — that they have some physiological ability to "lock" their jaw.

In a statement to Discovery News, Dunning stated, "The research is pretty clear that a pit bull's bite is indeed among the most dangerous of all dog breeds; but at the same time, pit bulls are not especially likely to attack in the first place."

Pit bulls are not necessarily any more aggressive than other types of dogs, Dunning said. "Any dog's level of aggression has less to do with its breed and more to do with its owner, its treatment and its environment. Aggressive owners often choose breeds with aggressive reputations, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As a result, the average stray pit bull is certainly more dangerous than a chicken nugget."

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