News Analysis: McDonald's takes online gamble

The fast-food chain's tie with a girls' website could play into the hands of health pressure groups.

As Jamie Oliver discovered, little raises the ire of Britain's chattering classes quite so much as the issue of what we feed our children. Given this environment, McDonald's is playing a dangerous game with its latest promotion.

The fast-food giant has teamed up with website Funky Friends, which is aimed at seven- to 12-year-old girls. Kids buying a Happy Meal receive a code that allows access to special content on the site in a McDonald's-branded zone.

The deal comes as McDonald's braces itself for the biggest assault on its reputation since Morgan Spurlock's 2004 documentary Super Size Me.

Next month sees the publication of a book by Charles Wilson and Eric Schlosser, entitled Chew On This. The book - an adaptation of Schlosser's bestseller Fast Food Nation for children over the age of 12 - seeks to expose the dark side of the fast-food industry in general, but McDonald's is expected to be the focus of any backlash.

This autumn, a film based on Fast Food Nation is due for release. It, too, will have teen appeal, with pop singer Avril Lavigne expected to star as a worker for a burger chain called Mickey's, who decides to battle the 'evils' of fast food.

The potential fallout of these developments is indicative of the importance of targeting the children's market not only to McDonald's, but also the health lobby.

Bypassing parents

According to Richard Watts, campaign co-ordinator at food and farming pressure group Sustain, tie-ups with sites such as Funky Friends are a deliberate attempt by food and drink brands to appeal directly to children. 'There is clear evidence that parents want their children to eat more healthily, so it is no surprise that McDonald's is doing promotions that bypass them,' he says.

Garry Hill, managing director of Robot Design, the firm behind Funky Friends, contends that recent changes at McDonald's mean it is a suitable fit. 'Three years ago, we wouldn't have associated with it,' he says.

'But it has changed - children can have salads there now.'

A McDonald's spokeswoman adds: 'This is simply about offering Funky Friends fans whose parents have bought them a Happy Meal some added fun. It complies with all the applicable guidelines and codes.'

But Funky Friends is not an isolated example. In January, a report by consumer rights body Which? highlighted the use of the internet and computer games by food and drink brands to target children. Among the examples cited were the use of McDonald's kiosks in video game The Sims and its appearance on virtual pet site neopets.co.uk. Last month, the company came under fire for signing a deal with Microsoft to produce a branded version of MSN Messenger.

As Ofcom prepares to outlaw the use of celebrities and licensed characters in broadcast ads aimed at children under 10, the internet has become an obvious promotional alternative.

The net is already an effective way to reach young people. And, according to Mark Borkowski, head of PR firm Borkowski, online activity is key to the promotional strategies used by firms such as McDonald's to boost their image in tough times. He points to the use of blogging and online sponsorships as examples. 'This sort of activity is effective at conditioning opinion,' he says. 'If you have the budget, you can have a real crack at children with these techniques.'

It is significant that McDonald's originally intended a broader tie-up with Funky Friends, with plans to offer branded games and features on the site, changing its mind amid increased public scrutiny of its online marketing.

As a result, the McDonald's zone carries little branding, with the exception of a colouring-in sheet showing the three Funky Friends brand characters beneath a banner carrying the fast-food chain's strapline 'I'm lovin' it'.

Pre-emptive action

There have been suggestions that McDonald's is turning up the heat to combat the threat of Chew On This and the Fast Food Nation film. Reports from the US claim it is planning to mobilise 'truth squads' of brand ambassadors to discredit Schlosser and his message.

McDonald's has denied this, but it certainly seems worried about the impact of the book and film. It recently briefed US franchisees on how it would fend off any damage, and it is safe to assume its UK arm is also preparing a response. 'The key will be talking about the facts,' says a spokeswoman. 'We want to ensure there is balanced debate.'

This is much the same approach it took to Super Size Me. Its response in the UK was limited to a website and press campaign in which it announced that it agreed with some of Spurlock's findings, but also rebutted some of his criticisms. Since then, it has overhauled its menu, giving it greater scope to talk to consumers about balanced diets.

But this calm approach could be jeopardised if McDonald's is further drawn into a controversy surrounding the emotive issue of marketing to children. If it is to survive unscathed, it must tread carefully in the coming months.

DATA FILE - MCDONALD'S PR CHALLENGE

Chew On This, written by Eric Schlosser and Charles Wilson, launches in the UK on 25 May.

According to the book's publisher, Penguin, it will expose 'the truth about slaughterhouses, meatpacking factories and flavour labs, global advertising, merchandising in UK schools, mass production and the exploitation of young workers'. The aim is to present the facts behind the fast-food industry, allowing children to make up their own minds on the subject.

The book will be followed in the autumn by a film also based on Fast Food Nation. The plot revolves around an executive at fictional fast-food chain Mickey's trying to perfect a sandwich called The Big One, and a schoolgirl worker battling to change the company. Stars lined up are believed to include Ethan Hawke and Avril Lavigne.

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