McDonald's to Launch Happy Meals Ads

New Characters Will Pitch Nutrition for Line Criticized for Role in Childhood Obesity

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McDonald's is putting its embattled Happy Meal front and center with a national TV campaign expected to launch next week, Ad Age has learned.

According to people familiar with the matter, the campaign will feature new characters and focus on nutrition, which has historically been a sore point with those who charge that Happy Meals contributed to an increase in childhood obesity. The campaign, which will most likely run periodically through 2012, was created by Publicis Groupe 's Leo Burnett, Chicago.

Credit: Bloomberg

The agency declined comment and referred calls to McDonald's. A spokeswoman for McDonald's did not provide details and said it was "premature to discuss a Happy Meals campaign."

The campaign is believed to be the first major TV push for Happy Meals since the chain began revamping the offering last fall with apple slices, fewer fries and a low-fat dairy option. The result is a 20% reduction in calories in what the chain calls its most popular Happy Meals.

It appears to be a follow-up to a nutrition declaration the chain made around the time it unveiled the new kids' meal. In a July press release the company said it would "raise nutrition awareness among children and parents through national marketing initiatives … promote nutrition messages in 100% of its national kids' communications, including merchandising, advertising, digital and the Happy Meal packaging … [and] provide funding for grassroots community nutrition-awareness programs."

The chain's commitment to nutrition also includes an average 15% cut in sodium across the national menu by 2015, and a promise to reduce added sugars, saturated fat and calories through varied portion sizes and reformulations by 2020.

In January, McDonald's launched Champions of Play, a global campaign about kids' wellness, as part of its marketing as the official restaurant for the Olympics. The campaign includes special Happy Meals packaging and in-store promotions, as well as a website featuring Olympic athletes.

Ronald McDonald, the chain's almost-50-something mascot associated with McDonald's kids' marketing, did not have the strongest presence in the advertising in recent years, appearing instead on the web and delivering messages about safety, nutrition and physical activity. One of his bigger roles in the last decade has been for the Ronald McDonald House Charities.

But the clown reappeared in April 2011, when the chain launched a campaign with him as the centerpiece, encouraging kids to visit its Happy Meals website. It's not clear, however, whether Ronald will be featured in the new Happy Meals advertising.

McDonald's has long been advertising for Happy Meals with movie tie-ins, and in 2010 the chain launched ads with characters such as Spaceman Stu.

Even so, the chain has decreased its overall spending on Happy Meals. McDonald's spent about $92 million on the product in 2011 -- close to 10% of its total U.S. measured-media budget but down from $115.2 million in 2010. By far the nation's top restaurant ad spender, McDonald's spent $963 million on measured media in 2011, according to Kantar, up 8.6% from 2010.

It's sure that critics will be watching the new advertising. McDonald's has long been under fire for Happy Meals, Ronald McDonald and marketing to children. In December 2010, consumer-advocacy group the Center for Science in the Public Interest filed a class-action lawsuit against the chain with the aim of stopping McDonald's use of toys to market directly to children.

It also faced a ban in cities such as San Francisco, which last year passed a law preventing restaurants from giving away toys with kids' meals. McDonald's circumvented the measure by offering the toys for purchase.

The restaurant industry on the whole has been working to promote nutrition for kids. Last year, the National Restaurant Association, in conjunction with Healthy Dining, launched KidsLiveWell, a voluntary initiative to spur chains to offer and promote healthier kids-meal options. Chains such as Burger King and Chili's jumped onboard, but McDonald's did not join the initiative. It announced its new Happy Meals less than two weeks later.

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