OPINION: Mills on ... McDonald's

It's at times like these that consumers prefer the comfort of the familiar and the unchanging. And that includes McDonald's ads which might feature one or more of the following: 99p offers, burgers, buns, French fries, milkshakes, toys from the latest animated Disney film, Ronald himself or even a new McDonald's Steak Premiere sandwich as recommended by the Independent Television Commission.

What throws us is a Leo Burnett McDonald's ad with eggs. I mean, come on, nobody but nobody thinks of McDonald's and eggs. Yes, I know they do the old Egg McMuffin thing, but if you asked 50 people to do word association with "McDonald's", nobody would answer "eggs" or, for that matter, vice versa.

So what's going on? Well, although the ad is one that stands out by virtue of a certain surprise value, not least because it's in the Sunday supplements, one thing that's not going on is a campaign to sell more Egg McMuffins.

On the surface of it the ad is all about establishing the provenance of the ingredients McDonald's uses. "The welfare of our chickens is always a priority at McDonald's," the copy opens, which is a startlingly unoriginal claim and probably the sort of thing Saddam says before he rounds up the "volunteers" for yet another human shield.

It continues: "And that means when you're enjoying one of our breakfasts, you can be sure you're only eating free range eggs. Talking of good eggs, we recently received the Good Egg Award from the British Free Range Egg Producers' Association ... blah blah blah ... which goes to show that like the chicken, the customer always comes first at McDonald's."

Does all this sound familiar? Of course it does. This is a well-trodden furrow. A bit of provenance always plays well. But this is also a classic bit of self-congratulatory corporate guff, which neatly side steps the question of whether these are the same chickens which, after laying their McEggs, are decapitated, disembowelled and then turned into Chicken McNuggets, the food so memorably described earlier this year by a US High Court judge as a "McFrankenstein creation".

Talk of which suggests to me that this ad is about more than just proving that McDonald's is nice to chickens, relief though it is to hear that.

Indeed, the stakes are considerably higher. Although the same US High Court judge threw out an attempt by two obese Brooklyn teenagers to sue McDonald's for making them fat, he was careful to make it clear that, with their complaint redrafted, the pair might have a better chance. The spectre of tobacco-style litigation must therefore be making McDonald's look nervously over its shoulder. As the tobacco experience shows, once the class-action lawyers get their teeth into something, they aren't going to let go easily.

In that context, this ad could be seen as a piece of preventative action.

You can imagine the big cheeses at McDonald's UK, which has seen its fair share of negative publicity in recent years (remember the McLibel trial?), not to mention the prospect of anti-Americanism, saying to themselves: "Look guys, Brooklyn isn't London but, hey, you never know. The Food Standards Agency is looking into advertising and children's eating habits. We're not in the spotlight now, but we soon could be. Let's get some positive messages out now ... starting with eggs."

Sceptics will see this as a cynical and manipulative piece of ass-covering.

But they're unlikely to be McDonald's fans anyway. Others may reassess their view of the chain, and perhaps find reassurance in the thought that McDonald's is less committed to junk food than they might have thought. Am I surprised that McDonald's uses free-range eggs? Yes. Do I care? Not really.

Dead cert for a Pencil? If you're talking McAdvertising.

File under ... D for defensive.

What would the chairman's wife say? "Thank God you didn't get Edwina

Currie to endorse your eggs."