WORLD: Stuart Elliott in America

Can three words help relight a creative fire under America's biggest fast feeder? McDonald's, which has over-promised and under-delivered often enough in recent years to wipe the silly grin off Ronald's clown face, has embarked on as comprehensive a marketing overhaul as any undertaken by a giant advertiser. The countdown has begun to 29 September, when the Golden Arches unveils the US version of its new global pitch, themed: "I'm lovin' it."

The theme, developed by a German agency that's part of DDB Worldwide, is getting an out-of-town tryout, so to speak, appearing in European markets before its debut on McDonald's home turf. The phrase, though short, speaks volumes about the woes of McDonald's. The fast food goliath has lost its hegemony in the quick-service restaurant category in the face of sharper creative concepts from competitors such as Subway, Taco Bell and Wendy's, as well as the growing concerns about the healthiness of burgers and fries.

"I'm lovin' it" is presented from the viewpoint of customers as they munch the McDonald's menu mainstays. You can almost hear the words being uttered in mid-bite, the "g" in "loving" dropped in the rush to chow down.

Compare that with the previous American market theme, from DDB Chicago: "We love to see you smile" (shortened to "Smile" when, to paraphrase Charlie Chaplin's lyric, the hearts of McDonald's executives started breaking as they watched revenues and profits plunge). The "We" is the client, not the consumer - a major blunder when marketers must be customer-centric to please fickle, finicky shoppers.

By contrast, perhaps the best McDonald's theme ever, created by a DDB predecessor, Needham, Harper & Steers, was "You deserve a break today" - the "you" underlining for whom all the cooking, cleaning and singing in the jingle-filled commercials was being done.

So far, the buzz on "I'm lovin' it" is decidedly mixed. The hiring of James Brown as the director in charge of the TV campaign for Heye & Partner, the DDB German shop that developed the theme, has generated laudatory coverage in trade publications such as Creativity.

But the initial commercials were the subject of a vituperative front-page review in Advertising Age by its critic, Bob Garfield, who poured his own brand of special sauce over the spots. "What an embarrassing, pandering mess," he declared, dismissing them as a "horror show collaboration", and concluding: "We're hatin' it."

Garfield's one-star rating (out of a possible four) may augur a rough ride ahead on the road to creative acceptability. But he tempered his outrage by the review's end, holding out the chance the campaign "will likely claw its way into the consumer psyche", by dint of the massive McDonald's media spend, estimated at $1.5 billion.

To be sure, much depends on how the American versions of the ads turn out, and even on whether the pop star Justin Timberlake, who's recording songs for - and making cameo appearances in - the campaign, stays as hot as Cameron Diaz thinks he is.

But one factor is finally in McDonald's favour: for the first time in years, sales have been climbing, up for five straight months, thanks to new salads and breakfast sandwiches.

And as just about anyone on Madison Avenue will tell you, a risin' tide lifts almost all creative boats.

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