Posted by: David Kiley on March 9, 2005
About five or six months ago I sat in a meeting here at Businessweek and said, ” You know, we ought to do a story about McDonald’s and how I imagine they are re-thinking its whole business model and culture right down to the bones of the company in the face of the obesity issues surrounding children.” Sadly, the story didn’t catch fire around here. But I believe the campaign McDonald’s kicked off this week is not an end of the beginning of a process, but rather the beginning of a much deeper make-over at the fast-food company than just offering a few new healthier products and ads about fitness.
McDonald’s has been rapidly becoming the international poster-brand for the costs and tragedy of people, especially children, getting fatter and sicker. Abroad, while the French, Spanish, Italians, Greeks, Japanese, etc. make McDonald’s rich overseas, health-conscious natives of those countries who treasure their unique food cultures hold up McDonald’s not only as an exporter of sickness, but the lead messenger of everything that is wrong with America. I think that may be putting too much on Ronald McDonald’s shoulders, but that’s what I take away from what I have read and heard over the years. Though, I have to admit, the scene in “Supersize Me” in which grade-school children could by far more easily recognize Ronald McDonald than U.S. presidents or Jesus Christ was troubling.
In short, the campaign, themed, “It’s what I eat and what I do … I’m lovin’ it,” consists of fitness-message commercials that largely dispense with showing product or people eating. One TV spot even says, “Maybe you should spend less time with your TV” There are six TV spots to start. A pot featuring Serena and Venus Williams includes the lyrics “I’m burnin’ calories like a fiend. … Leafy greens so right for you. I’m making good choices, you can, too,” while shots of salads and other menu items are interspersed with shots of the tennis stars on the court. McDonald’s has been doing well with its salads and introducing items such as apple slices to menu offerings, too.
The company has realized that it has to get the stink off it. We have in the U.S. what George Carlin calls, “The cult of the child.” As a parent of a three-year old, I can attest to this. Unlike my parents, my wife and I often try to micro-manage our son’s development. We spend far more time talking about him and his development than I believe our parents ever did about us. My parents did a great job, I believe. I just don’t recall them obsessing like we do.
The national conversation has turned for McDonald’s. Across the country, parents are being made to feel bad for buying food for their kids at McDonald’s. That’s not good for business.
This week’s campaign, which kicks off in Europe and Asia as well, is the real beginning of the de-stinking process. But here’s what McDonald’s combatants and concerned parents will be looking for:
-Spending at least 20% of its ad budget on messages infused with healthy eating and living content.
-Wider use and application of Ronald McDonald to promote fitness and eating at McDonald’s as a treat, not a habit.
-Leading an effort in the food industry to voluntarily restricts advertising food directly to children under age 12 on TV, print, out-of-home and on the Internet unless that food meets certain dietary guidelines agreed upon by a panel of food execs and nutritionists.