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Arby's starts a turf war with McDonald's over fish sandwiches before Lent season

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 2/16/2020 Kelly Tyko, USA TODAY

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Arby’s has the meats, but it’s diving deeper into the surf.

After last year's Chicken Sandwich War and before Lent, Arby's fired the first salvo in a high-stakes battle over who has the best fish sandwich Sunday.

Welcome to the Fish Sandwich War of 2020.

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The chain famous for its roast beef sandwiches is trolling McDonald's Filet-O-Fish with a new campaign tied to its limited-time Crispy Fish Sandwich and the new Fish n’ Cheddar Sandwich, Arby's officials shared exclusively with USA TODAY.

Filet-O-Fish sandwiches sit on a tray at a McDonald's restaurant in Little Falls, New Jersey, Wednesday, February 15, 2011.  Emile Wamsteker/Bloomberg News © Emile Wamsteker/Bloomberg News Filet-O-Fish sandwiches sit on a tray at a McDonald's restaurant in Little Falls, New Jersey, Wednesday, February 15, 2011. Emile Wamsteker/Bloomberg News

“Fish is meat, too; it’s just ocean meat,” said Deborah von Kutzleben, Arby's vice president of advertising, content and core menu. "We felt that it was time to take a different approach, to really have people question Filet-O-Fish – and whether or not it is the best – and take a moment to try ours."

If you are McDonald's, those are fighting words.

The Arby's campaign doesn't stop there. Arby's pokes fun at the size and square shape of McDonald's fish sandwich in a series of commercials that will run on TV and social media starting Sunday. In one brief ad for YouTube, shared with USA TODAY in advance, Arby's urges, "Stop eating Filet-O-Fishes. Eat Arby's Crispy Fishes."

Fast-food restaurants often troll the competition on social media and in their special promotions to get attention.

A week after Popeyes' debut of its New Orleans-style chicken sandwich in August, the chain started a social media frenzy with Chick-fil-A and other restaurants. It was quickly dubbed the Chicken Sandwich War.

In December 2018, Burger King's viral Whopper Detour deal offered penny Whoppers for app users near a McDonald's restaurant, then detoured them to a Burger King.

In recent days, Arby's started to quietly target McDonald's by responding to consumer complaints about the Filet-O-Fish on Twitter and offering a free Arby's sandwich to make it right.

In a tweet Feb. 12, Arby's Guest Support account responded to a customer who said the sandwich was missing the fish patty. "We at Arby's are truly sorry for this situation and resolving it is very important to us. Do you mind sending us a (direct message)? We want to give you one of our fish sandwiches."

Select Arby’s near McDonald's restaurants will add special messages to their outside signs that suggest the emoji with the cowboy hat and fish is better than the fish with clown-like icon that resembles McDonald's mascot Ronald McDonald.

Unlike Arby's and other chains that offer seasonal seafood options to their menus for Lent, a time when many Catholics forgo meat, McDonald's sandwich is available all year at all U.S. locations. This year, the Lenten Season is Feb. 26 through April 9.

In 1965, the Filet-O-Fish was the first addition to McDonald’s original menu and was the only non-hamburger option at the time. McDonald's has said it's one of the most popular menu items, especially on the Fridays leading up to Easter.

Arby's fish sandwich was introduced in 2001 in select restaurants, the company said. It returned to restaurants for a limited time in late December along with the new Fish n’ Cheddar that includes a cheddar cheese sauce on top of the fried Alaskan pollock fillet.

"It is truly something that we hear our guests love us for, and it’s why we bring it back every year," von Kutzleben said. "We’re really excited to point out to Filet-O-Fish lovers that Arby’s fish sandwiches are something they should definitely try."

Follow USA TODAY reporter Kelly Tyko on Twitter: @KellyTyko

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