Singapore braces for Hello Kitty riot at McDonald's

The chain's limited-edition toys provoked fist fights, school truancy and threats to store managers in the past. Can the country handle another promotion?

By MSN Money Partner Apr 28, 2014 1:52PM
Credit: Courtesy of McDonald’s Singapore via Facebook,

Caption: Hello Kitty Bubbly World plush toys are available for purchase in McDonald Singapore storesBy Chun Han Wong, The Wall Street Journal

Fourteen years ago, a Hello Kitty sales promotion here spiraled out of control, threatening to disrupt the peace in this order-obsessed Asian city-state. Historians called what happened a "fever," while lawmakers debated what should be done to end the plushy pussy mayhem.

Now a new set of the famous Japanese cartoon characters are coming -- and Singapore's ability to play nice with its Hello Kitty toys is about to be put to the test.

Starting Monday, customers ordering food at McDonald's restaurants here will have the chance to buy limited-edition Hello Kitty toys dolled up in various costumes. The stuffed choices include "Bad Badtz-Maru," a "mischievous little penguin who doesn't like anything but himself," according to promotional materials, and "PomPomPurin," a boy golden retriever with a brown beret who "loves milk, anything soft and his mama's cream caramel puddings."

Yet already the offer is unsettling some Singaporeans, who remember what happened when a similar deal was unveiled in 2000.

At the time, tens of thousands of people swarmed restaurant outlets to get their hands on the mouthless mascot kitten, which was paired in the promotion with her boyfriend Daniel. Both were attired in wedding outfits.

Schoolchildren skipped class and parents ditched work to get in line. Profiteers scooped up supplies and promptly resold them for a quick buck.

Fist fights broke out while frustrated patrons threatened store managers, damaged restaurant property and compelled the fast-food outlets to hire private security firms to police crowds. At one outlet, at least seven people were injured after a glass door they were leaning on shattered.

Singapore, which keeps tight curbs on public speech and famously bans most sales of chewing gum to keep its streets clean, was caught by surprise. While public demand was heated for similar promotions in Hong Kong and Taiwan, few expected law-abiding Singaporeans to turn so catty -- or for the issue to claw its way to the top ranks of power.

"We should not get too carried away," said then-Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who later became prime minister. "Even if you want the Kitty, there is no need to fight fiercely to try and get one," he told local media at a public event.

In Parliament, a lawmaker asked the environment minister if he planned to stop McDonald's from selling Hello Kitty dolls. "It's not under my purview," the minister replied.

Experts struggled to explain the phenomenon. In an academic study titled "The Hello Kitty Craze in Singapore: A Cultural and Comparative Analysis," Benjamin Ng Wai-Ming, an associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, described the frenzy as a "fever" and noted that many Singaporeans believed the dolls had investment value.

Last year, things got heated again when McDonald's rolled out a so-called "Fairy Tales" Hello Kitty set, featuring six versions designed after popular folklore. The last one -- a black kitten sporting a skeletal motif -- sparked mayhem as security personnel were called in to deal with heated squabbles caused by widespread line-jumping. McDonald's wrote a letter to a local newspaper apologizing for the chaos and promised to do better next time.

For better or worse, such drama over the years has seared the Hello Kitty brand -- created some 40 years ago by Sanrio Co, Sanrio Co., a Japanese merchandising firm -- into Singaporeans' minds. Ang Swee Hoon, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore, says she frequently regales her students with marketing wisdom gleaned from the promotions.

"Despite all the chaos, McDonald's still generated more sales," Ang said. "Even bad publicity pays."

In a written statement, Yvonne Low, senior director of marketing, for McDonald's Singapore, said the chain is bringing out the popular toys again as a way of celebrating the 40th anniversary of Hello Kitty and that "customer service has always been our priority."

Still, Singaporeans fret about the possible consequences.

"Brace yourself!" read a message posted by a user named Hans Chen on McDonald's local Facebook page. "The Hello Kitty are coming!"

This year, the fast-food chain is selling six new versions of the mascot cat, each designed after famous characters created by Sanrio. The toys, which McDonald's is offering under a license agreement, include one that lives in a big house "on the edge of Donut Pond."

Pledging to prevent a repeat of ugly scenes that plagued past promotions, McDonald's says it has engaged private-security firms to provide crowd control and prepared line-management plans for its staff. It is also boosting its toy supplies by roughly 50 percent compared with last year.

To improve buyers' experience and curb black-market sales, the company also is offering online sales for a collector's set featuring all six toys, 

Low said.

But the online sales drive was overwhelmed by the weight of orders, forcing the fast-food chain to temporarily suspend sales after less than two hours.

Hundreds of disgruntled Kitty-lovers hurled abuse on McDonald's Facebook page, accusing the fast-food chain of sloppy customer service.

"This is the worst online marketing I have ever seen," a person using the name Jimmy Oh wrote. "All we want is a set of Hello Kitty toys! Damn it!"

"Are you selling Sanrio plush toys or disappointment?" asked a poster using the name Jasmine See, an accountant in her 30s, who said she wanted the toys for herself and her nieces and nephews. She said she successfully placed orders after McDonald's resumed online sales hours later.

At least some Kitty-lovers -- the ones who secured orders -- were grateful for being spared agonizing overnight queues when physical sales start in stores on Monday.

McDonald's Low noted that "to deter profiteering, we have limited the number of plush toys to four per store visit for each customer, while stocks last."

But the announcement of a ramped-up supply has also triggered other kinds of cat-fighting, with some collectors fretting over the potential for depressed resale values.

"They caused an uproar of hype and let everyone assume it's limited," said Aileen Tan, an administrative assistant in her 30s, who owns complete sets of all Hello Kitty plushies ever sold by McDonald's Singapore. "I'm totally upset this year."

More from The Wall Street Journal
Tags: MCD
Apr 28, 2014 2:49PM
Apr 28, 2014 2:50PM
I never understood what the big deal is about Hello Kitty, it's image lacks creativity. She doesn't even have a mouth, which I always found creepy. So I truly don't understand why people would be beating each other up for a Hello Kitty toy, let alone one that comes in a happy meal. Adults missing work to get them, wtf? "Sorry, can't come into work today. Gotta wait in line & punch a few people in the face so I can get Hello Kitty dressed up as a pissed off penguin."
Apr 28, 2014 3:33PM
Apr 28, 2014 4:05PM
Hello Kitty:  The Monica Lewinsky / Bill Clinton Collection.
Collect the entire set !

Apr 28, 2014 2:45PM
Apr 28, 2014 4:01PM
Apr 28, 2014 6:39PM

They would look good on the shoulders of the new, gay, Ronnie McD.

Apr 28, 2014 4:52PM
Didn't  McDonald's get the Beanie Babies craze kicked off?  I smell Hello Kitty collector booths comin to a flea market near you. Anyone want to buy some Pet Rocks?   
Apr 28, 2014 4:51PM
Just proves how stupid people can be over nothing. Hey Kitty Hello this!
Apr 28, 2014 5:50PM
avatar's like a new pair of Jordans, Singapore style. Some peoples misguided, dumba$$ kids and their plushy pussies.

Apr 28, 2014 5:00PM
We love dumb looking things, like the Hello Kitty's
Apr 28, 2014 3:14PM
OHHH ,Check for the lead paint on them.  ?
Apr 28, 2014 3:02PM
Looks like Mcdonalds is in the spotlight again on MSN. And of course not in a good way again. Will they learn a lesson from all of this and why bring back hello kitty items again if they knew it caused controversy in the past.
Apr 28, 2014 5:12PM
"plushy pussy" is a toy?I thought they were talking about Rosanne Barr!
Apr 28, 2014 6:41PM

FREE ADVERTISING ( disguised as news ) I WANT SOME.

No, really us little mom-and-pops need to get the same free advertising...on the news pages..that the big boys do.

Apr 28, 2014 6:10PM
Apr 28, 2014 6:49PM
They need a ploy.  Their food sucks.
Apr 28, 2014 3:02PM
I don't get Hello Kitty.  Is that some kind of code for some other meaning?
Apr 29, 2014 4:47PM
Noticed MSN deleted my comment about "plushy, pussy mayhem". Censorship at its finest!
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