Big Mac Drives Home Its New Happy Meals Message

Today’s the big day. Nah, we’re not talking about Apple’s new iPad. We did that last week. We’re talking apple slices. Specifically, the ones served up with the McNuggets and McDoubles.

“We want balanced meals for our kids, but we never said they had to be boring. And that’s exactly why we love the new Happy Meal. Juicy apples slices and tasty new Kids fries come in every box.”

Says who?

Says McDonald’s on its home page this morning as its campaign to reinvent the image of Happy Meals reportedly kicks off with a spot featuring an animated -– in both senses of the word –- farm boy named Ferris and his unnamed pet goat. The goat is a “constant eating disastrophe,” a lilting jingle tells us, who gobbles everything in sight, including dad’s hair, until Ferris packs him off to the Golden Arches for some fruit and dairy (fat-free “cold and yummy” Chocolate Milk).

Restaurant News has an embedded version of the first commercial in the campaign here.

“Other cast members [in future spots] include Ant, Deana the Dino and Dodo,” according to a McDonald’s release. “As the characters' stories unfold, they discover the benefits of eating foods from recommended food groups….”

The release also makes clear that Happy Meals toys are here to stay, as it consistently has, despite critics’ contention that they entice kids to make unhealthy eating choices. “Select ads featuring the current Happy Meal toys will encourage active and imaginative play that benefits children's overall wellbeing and happiness,” it states.

McDonald’s announced the plan to include apple slices and smaller packets of French fries in Happy Meals last year, you may recall, reducing calories by about 20%, and it has been gradually introducing healthier fare to its menu over the years.

“The average number of menu items that contain at least half a serving of fruit or vegetables rose to 15.8 in 2010, from 9.9 in 2006, according to the company’s most recent sustainability report,” writes Bloomberg’s Leslie Patton.

The new campaign “is believed to be the first major TV push for Happy Meals” since the menu revision, however, Ad Age’s Maureen Morrison reported last Friday, in breaking the news about the new spots out of Leo Burnett. It “will most likely run periodically through 2012,” she reports.

“McDonald's conducted research for several days in Chicago with kids ages 7-12 to determine what motivated them to eat healthy and to exercise,” reports the Chicago Tribune’s Emily Bryson York. Marlena Peleo-Lazar, chief creative officer of McDonald's USA, tells Bryson York that she was “impressed with how knowledgeable the children were about nutrition, including understanding calories and food groups.”

Peleo-Lazar also says that the company is prepared for the inevitable criticism it will face for not having gone further. To wit: "You can be a brand that responds to everything,” she says, “or you can focus on the right thing for the brand and the business."

Some activists welcome the message. Elaine Kolish, vp of the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative at the Better Business Bureau, calls the ads “outstanding” and feels the smaller containers for fries will help to teach kids portion control.

It is, no doubt, a clear departure from past campaigns. “For the first time, 100% of our national marketing efforts to kids will include nutrition or active-lifestyle messages, a significant move in our ongoing commitment to children’s wellbeing,” McDonald’s USA CMO Neil Golden says in a statement.

Still, “Even with the changes and the reduction of sodium McDonald’s has been making in its chicken, it’s still not what any of us would call ‘health’ food, writes Nicole Villalpando in the [Austin] Stateman.com’s “Mama Drama” blog. “With four chicken nuggets, fries, apples and 1% milk, kids are getting 410 calories, 170 of them from fat.”

But, like most consumers, Villalpando is a pragmatist in the long run -– actually, I should write “in the long drive.”

“In the reality that is our lives, if we’re hitting the drive-through after a busy day or during a road trip,” Villalpando observes, “providing the apples automatically might be one small step to making better food choices.”

And Villalpando should write “one small lurch from squawk box to pick-up window,” truly reflecting the reality of our kids’ sedentary lifetyle.

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