Opinion: Newland on ... McDonald's

Working in McDonald's corporate communications department must be like working at Goldman Sachs; you know you're at the top of your field.

And McDonald's has to hire the best because for several years now it has lurched from one PR crisis to another.

The latest is the launch of Super Size Me, a low-budget film directed, produced and starring one Morgan Spurlock. In case you've Augusted away and are unaware of the plot, Spurlock eats nothing but McDonald's fare for a month, gaining a lot of weight and damaging his liver in the process.

His film has made a big impact. Spurlock won the best director award at the Sundance Film Festival. The film's August UK release saw it launch in fallow news times, assuring it maximum exposure on national news programmes.

Most importantly of all, it came out just as western consciences decided to get tough on obesity.

McDonald's had two options: ignore the film and hope it didn't make much hullabaloo, or take on the film's claims. Enter the PR strategists. They've opted to fight the film and there's no doubt that in doing so, they have transformed its release into a massive media event.

For journalists, publishing a story about a fat man eating McDonald's has some draw, but only some. However, publishing one about the much-detested McDonald's getting fired up about a low-budget movie has much more potential.

In Australia, McDonald's reacted with a TV commercial. It's CEO was filmed in one of the outlets explaining how McDonald's never intended for its customers to eat its food three times a day. A similar line was taken by McDonald's in the UK, only it opted for a lower-profile, high-brow press campaign.

The ad ran at the end of last week in The Guardian, The Independent and The Times with the headline: "If you haven't seen the film Super Size Me, here's what you're missing."

Frank and friendly words from McDonald's. It's intelligent copy, written in the kind of casual style fans of films such as Super Size Me or Fahrenheit 911 respond to. Not in the angry corporate tone you'd expect McDonald's to use.

The ad's sardonic tone undermines the film's efforts. It notes it would take an average McDonald's customer six years to consume what Spurlock did in a month, adding: "(Apologies for spoiling the ending, but it's hardly a cliff-hanger.) He puts on weight. Lots of weight."

The ad admits the film is annoying, but argues that eating at McDonald's is not bad for you. It's the best ad I've seen for McDonald's since Nick Bell and Mark Tutssel were running Leo Burnett's creative department four years ago. This is because it credits its consumers with half a brain, unlike the "I'm lovin' it" debacle polluting sitting rooms around the world.

McDonald's is taking a massive beating, not just in the film but on all fronts as the obesity debate rages. Decades of success are making it the butt of most of the criticism. Spurlock's point isn't that McDonald's makes you fat, it's that eating too much fast food makes you fat.

Until last week, I've been really unimpressed with McDonald's knee-jerk reaction. UK ads which portrayed Sex and the City-style women as the chain's "new" kind of customer were unconvincing, even with some new salad-coloured branding spliced on to them. Its two-minute films for children seem insincere; they smack of being seen to do the right thing.

The chain is, in fact, doing some of the right stuff. It's improving the health qualities of its menu, lowering salt and offering fruit. What it now needs to do is produce substantial, but subtle, advertising to support this initiative.

Dead cert for a Pencil? Not much art direction going on.

File under ... W for well-written.

What would the chairman's wife say? "Let them eat cake."

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