So as the chain undertakes its massive multimillion dollar "energy balance" marketing campaign pushing moderation, personal responsibility and eating and exercise tips, the question remains how credible consumers will find that advice.
The answer isn't as simple as you might think.
While 73% of respondents to an exclusive Lightspeed Online Research survey with Advertising Age fingered fast-food restaurants as a major contributor to obesity, an overwhelming 92% said parents were more to blame for childhood obesity than fast-food companies. Some 38% found fast-food restaurants a credible source of nutritional information.
About half, 52%, said fast-food companies are credible when they talk about the importance of balancing their menus, and that marketer-sponsored exercise programs make them feel better about eating fast-food (49%).
Fast-feeders were ranked last among trustworthy sources for nutrition, health and exercise tips. Athletes ranked in the middle between nutritionists, doctors, physical trainers on the top end and the media and beverage and fast-food companies on the lower end-raising doubts on whether the team of Olympic athletes and hopefuls put in the forefront of McDonald's lifestyle effort will resonate with consumers.
And while politicians and critics make much of the 200 food commercials that kids see each week and the $2 billion spent annually for promotion among the top 10 fast-feeders, survey respondents don't think an advertising cutback is the answer. Only 17% of respondents thought that advertising fast-food less often would help alleviate the obesity epidemic, and 32% advocated an industry-sponsored nutrition advertising fund.
Instead, when asked to pick one activity companies could do to reduce obesity, removing trans fats from foods and putting calorie counts on menus were the two choices most selected, each drawing 32% of responses. Restaurants serving smaller portions drew the third-most chosen option, especially among younger, wealthier and more educated respondents.
These consumers aren't food snobs. Nearly half of consumers ages 18-34 and more than one-third of consumers ages 35 to 44 said they eat fast food more than once a week. A full 82% of the respondents said fast food can be eaten rarely as a treat without interfering with a healthful diet and only 9% said fast food can be eaten frequently. Of those polled, 44% said fast-food marketers should urge consumers to eat their products as indulgences.
Dr. Joey Skelton, a fellow in pediatric gastroenterology and nutrition and medical director of a new kids' program at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, sees first-hand how complex the issue is. He said that while the concept of energy balance isn't bad, some experts view moderation as what you eat more than how much you eat. "We're only eating about 200 to 300 more calories per day than we were about 35 years ago, but it's what those calories are-high-fat and high-sugar convenience food," he said. "A message of moderation can be dangerous when what you're eating is baseline unhealthy food."
There is also potential for the balance messages to confuse consumers-and work against McDonald's in the long run, said one marketing expert. "What you do is end up eroding the treat-related equity," said Nick Hahn, managing partner of management consultant Vivaldi Partners.
The Lightspeed results also reflect that the ever-widening array of healthful-eating "experts" are confusing consumers. "The average consumer is so bombarded with info from different sources that they are already struggling to sort out fact from fiction," said Wendy Wolfe, research associate at Cornell University's Division of Nutritional Sciences. Food marketers so far outspend nutrition organizations that health organizations have begun collaborating with marketers.
The messenger does matter, according to Alicia Moag-Stahlberg, executive director of Action for Healthy Kids, a nonprofit aimed at improving nutrition and physical activity in schools. "Only a third of people may not notice [the messenger] and will take information at face value, whereas two-thirds will look at who is the source and that will affect the credibility of the message."
And McDonald's believes it is a credible messenger. "Everybody has a role, there is no one source," said Larry Light, McDonald's exec VP-chief global marketing officer. "The question is not `Should the food business have a role?' but `How can they help?"'
Yet Mr. Light's own interpretation of balance is murky. While he agreed that a Big Mac is appropriate, "but not every day for every meal," figuring how many trips to McDonald's is excessive is a more tricky proposition. "It isn't a matter of each meal fitting into some calculation," he said. "Over the course of a week, you should be in balance and average that much per day."