Not for the first time, McDonald’s finds itself at the heart of highly charged protest action within its stores – albeit over an issue the fast food giant has very little influence.

Police are investigating after apparently pro-Palestinian activists staged a number of controversial stunts in UK stores in recent days, with Starbucks also targeted.

Live mice dyed in the colours of the Palestinian flag sent customers screaming after they were released in Birmingham’s Star City and Perry Barr branches.

In Keighley, stick insects were released into a McDonald’s store, while vandals smashed windows with hammers in a neighbouring Starbucks over claims the coffee chain supports Israel.

McDonald’s has condemned the mice protests – while distancing itself from any political alignment in the Middle East conflict.

The action comes after reports that in Israel, a local McDonald’s franchise operator was offering discounts to Israeli soldiers, security forces and others affected since the Hamas’ October 7 attack.

According to posts on social media, McDonald’s Israel has given out 100,000 free meals.

This prompted a consumer backlash and messages from other regional franchises distancing themselves from the move.

Franchise groups in Kuwait, Pakistan and other countries issued statements confirming that they did not share ownership with the Israeli franchise.

Others such as in Saudi Arabia also noted that they had made financial donations to aid Gaza.

McDonald’s said it was “dismayed by the disinformation and inaccurate reports” regarding its position in response to the conflict in the Middle East.

“McDonald’s Corporation is not funding or supporting any governments involved in this conflict, and any actions from our local developmental licensee business partners were made independently without McDonald’s consent or approval” the company said. 

The statement went on to condemn “violence of any kind”, and stand “firmly against hate speech”.

“We are doing everything we can to ensure the safety of our people in the region while supporting the communities where we operate.”

Meanwhile, Starbucks is being targeted after its union, Starbucks Workers United, posted a since-deleted message on X (Twitter) expressing solidarity with Palestinians early during the conflict.

The union reportedly shared an image of a bulldozer operated by Hamas tearing down a fence on the Gaza strip, according to news organizations which saw the post.

“We unequivocally condemn these acts of terrorism, hate and violence, and disagree with the statements and views expressed by Workers United and its members,” Starbucks responded. “Workers United’s words and actions belong to them, and them alone.”

As a result, Starbucks is suing the union over damage to its reputation, while the union is counter-suing Starbucks.

The latest political developments add another layer of acrimony to an already fraught relationship between the coffee shop giant and its unionised workforce in the US.

The dispute has triggered calls to boycott Starbucks, with protesters in New York plastering Starbucks with pro-Palestinian stickers during a recent march in Brooklyn.

Despite efforts by the two American corporations to steer clear of allying with a particular side in the bitter conflict, this has not stopped protesters choosing to target the brands over perceived alliances.

It shows the delicate PR tightrope corporate brands must walk during times of emotionally-charged partisan disputes.

Staff in other companies such as Google have been vocally critical of their employer for statements which condemned the Hamas attacks in Israeli civilians, but which they felt had little empathy in acknowledging Palestinian civilian suffering and casualties. 

The acts which apparently inspired the in-store incidents also demonstrate the structural challenges of the decentralised, franchise-based system McDonald’s is famous for.

It is a global system which empowers local business owners to make independent decisions relevant to their own region. But it can lead to confusion and blurred lines between the identity of the corporate brand and that of the business owner when it comes to perceived political action such as this.

This latest disruption comes as McDonald’s UK is still reeling in the aftermath of a scandal involving claims of sexual harassment and assault against young workers within its franchised businesses, a revelation which also laid bare questions of accountability within a complex devolved business structure.

While they have been targeted for what critics see as an alignment to the dominant force in the conflict, it is not the first time the potent symbols of corporate America have been targeted.

Political stunts draw inevitable attention towards their respective cause, and McDonald’s and Starbucks stores have been theatrical stages for direct action over the years.

In 2019, McDonald’s was targeted by vegan rights activists, who smeared fake blood on the floor of a Brighton store. In the same year, Nando’s Brighton was occupied by a group of protesters over the chain’s chicken welfare.

Radical animal rights group PETA has regularly targeted the burger chain, hosting a ’die-in’ in New York in 2015, drawing global media attention.

Food Not Bombs staged a “food swap” inside a McDonald’s restaurant in San Francisco in 2017, bringing in healthy food and offering it to customers in exchange for their McDonald’s food.

In 1999, a group of radical farmers in the south of France partially dismantled a McDonald’s under construction in a protest over globalization. Ringleader Jose Bove was jailed for two months – but went on to become anti-establishment folk hero and a Green MEP.

Last year, Succession actor James Cromwell glued has hands to a Manhattan Starbucks counter to protest the coffee chain’s extra charge for plant-based milk. “When will you stop raking in huge profits while customers, animals and the environment suffer?” he demanded, as activists streamed the protest on Facebook.

Needless to say, the direct action will be highly distressing for customers and managers, and an unwated PR headache for corporate HQ.

Despite the firmness of the language in the response, misinformation spreads like wildfire on social media, and clarifications often get lost in the noise. As the old maxim goes, “the first casualty of war is truth”.

While the bombardment rages on in Gaza, McDonald’s and Starbucks UK will want to put clear distance between the horrific conflict and their own estate, shifting the smouldering tension away and ensuring their own brands aren’t further drawn into the fray.