McDonald's is releasing 500 "pay-it-forward" free coffee cards into the wild across the country.

By Mike Pomranz
Updated August 22, 2019

Every now and then, "paying it forward" finds its way into the news cycle. A typical story goes like this: Someone at a Starbucks drive-thru says they want to pay for the person in the car behind them as well as for their own coffee, and thus the chain begins. Sometimes, these chains can be hundreds of people long, though doing so can require a bit of intervention to keep things moving: For example, a 378-person chain in 2014 was credited to a Starbucks barista who continued to ask each customer if they'd like to keep paying it forward to the next person, according to USA Today.

Credit: McDonald's

For a new McCafe campaign, McDonald's is taking that intervention a step further. Tomorrow, August 21, the chain will be releasing 500 "McCafe It Forward" cards into the wild to "500 local do-gooders and coffee lovers across the country." Each swipe of the card is good for one free small cup of McCafe Premium Roast Coffee or Iced Coffee per person, after which, that person is encouraged to "pass it on to someone who is doing good in your world!" as the card states — though McDonald's also says that "friends, family, or even strangers" work too. The cards will remain valid for three days, until August 23.

Adding to the intrigue, the chain promises that we'll be able to follow along at as the cards travel, ostensibly watching a mapped network of goodness as it spreads around the country (or just does circles around the greater metropolitan area) — what McDonald's is calling "the chain reaction of kindness" that will be automatically updated based on where the cards are being used. Customers are also being encouraged to "share your experience using #BeABrewGooder" in the hopes that we can further delve into this social experiment on social media.

Personally, I find that "pay it forward" publicity stunts can be a bit cheesy, but the experimental nature of this concept does seem interesting, especially backed by the best known fast food chain in the world. However, I was left with a few questions. For instance, isn't McDonald's worried these cards might just get stuck in one location? Once word gets out that you have a free McCafe card, you'd kind of have to be a jerk to walk out of the restaurant to go give the card to someone you like better. And speaking of jerks, does anything prevent someone from just pocketing the card themselves and using it for free coffee for the next three days?

"We believe in the goodness of our customers, and we're hoping to serve a lot of McCafe coffee as a result of customers passing along the McCafe It Forward cards," a McDonald's spokesperson told me. "Because we frequently see customers perform pay-it-forward chains on their own, we believe that the majority of people will 'McCafe It Forward' so that goodness is shared with others. However, if crew members notice a customer taking advantage of the card promotion, they can take the card to discontinue usage from that customer."

In the end, I guess it all just adds to the fun of the social experiment: We'll just have to find out.