Turning over a new leaf

Senior ad men are wondering if the new McDonald's campaign has lost the plot, says Alex Benady

Carrie and her Sex and the City crew are no longer with us, but their influence on popular culture shows no sign of abating. For the past few months, McDonald's has been advertising its new range of salads, featuring attractive thirtysomething women who clearly know about the semiotics of salad cream.

The TV commercial lists the new items, such as Caesar salad, Quorn and yoghurt. Then a voiceover intones: "These girls are also new in McDonald's. Impatient Sophie, sensible Charlotte, and... Joanna, who's always late! New food, new people - Salads Plus." In the closing shot, the hussies ogle a passing male behind.

It's toe-curling stuff, but the ads are a radical departure for McDonald's, which last week launched a parallel £1m campaign urging children to eat more greens and fruit. The company recorded its first loss in 2000 as a result of concern over healthy eating, increased competition and the BSE issue. "The new menu and its advertising are designed as a response to consumer demand for healthier eating, principally from women and mums taking their children for a Happy Meal," the company says.

Some marketing experts see the Salad Plus initiative as a masterstroke. Martin Mason of the consultancy edge-1 says: "The clever thing is that on the one hand it repositions McDonald's as a socially responsible company after years of bad press. But at the same time it opens up a massive untapped market segment." It's an argument McDonald's doesn't deny. "We think the range will be something that appeals to our existing customers [and] new customers," a spokesman said.

Over the past 10 years, McDonald's has become a whipping boy for anybody with a gripe: anti-capitalists, the anti-fast food lobby and opponents of advertising aimed at children. So the question is, as Carrie might write: "Has McDonald's really turned over a new leaf... or are the salads just dressing?"

British ad executives say you won't find the answer to that question in the advertising worth £40m that McDonald's places each year. There's a consensus in adland that, during the Nineties, McDonald's was consistently one of the best advertisers in the country. David Bain, the planning director of Banks Hoggins O'Shea FCB, explains: "Despite being American-owned, it managed to Anglicise itself through a string of beautifully observed comments on British life."

But last year the US head office imposed a global campaign starring Justin Timberlake with the "I'm lovin it" tagline. The line was thought up in Germany. Some commercials have been made in the US, others in Australia. The "ladies who lunch" ad was devised in Spain.

The resulting commercials have been meaningless, say some admen, who are openly scornful. Mike Finn, the chief executive of the agency DFGW, says: "This feels like a crass US campaign that's been rammed down people's throats."

Others say it undermines the standing of McDonald's. Malcolm White, executive planning director of Euro RSCG London, adds: "Give me something to love. Don't tell me I'm loving it. It stinks of globo-tosh."

A recent visit to a McDonald's in central London revealed it to be cleaner and less impersonal than in years past. But the biggest change was in the menu: it's still predominantly burgers and fries, but at least a quarter of the menu board was devoted to the new "healthier" range of products.

The children, of course, still opted for the Happy Meal burger and chips combo, although sadly they had sold out of the 80g fresh-fruit packs (McDonald's claims to have sold 10 million of these in 13 months). The adults had grilled chicken ranch salads followed by yoghurt and berries.

Now, it's true that at 396 calories and 19 grams of fat, the salad with dressing was more calorific than a cheeseburger (299 calories, 11.5 grams of fat), but we left feeling reasonably virtuous. On the other hand, £3.50 for little more than a plateful of leaves did feel steep.

The new menu got a mixed reception from nutritionists, who grudgingly gave McDonald's marks for effort, if not results. Wendy Graham of the Hale Clinic in London says: "They don't seem to have thought through the nutritional aspects. [The items] are too high in fat, and there's too much salt." The clinical nutritionist Dr Michael Franklin sees the salads as a missed opportunity. "Without much more effort they could have come up with something genuinely healthy."

But Dr Deborah McManners, a food specialist, says it is too early to tell whether the changes are real or superficial. "If this is the first small but pragmatic step on a journey to healthier foods, then it's good."

However, her main worry is the message sent to children. On the one hand, the new menu may send positive signals about healthier eating. On the other, by attracting mothers who might not otherwise visit McDonald's, it could end up boosting sales of burgers and chips to children.

Whatever the long-term effects, the new strategy seems to be paying off. In March, the company reported a 56 per cent increase in profits on turnover up nearly 10 per cent worldwide. The company also claims that 89 per cent of young adults in its top 10 markets are now aware of the "I'm lovin it" ad campaign.

Perhaps it is naive to ask whether McDonald's is sincere in its embrace of healthier eating. It's a business - and if customers demand McCouscous, then McDonald's has to oblige.

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