'Chew on This'
The adversary is Eric Schlosser, author of the 2001 best-seller "Fast Food Nation," which blew the lid off many of the practices used by McDonald's and its cohorts, exposing them in an unsavory light. His new attack on the world's fast feeders: a "Fast Food Nation" movie to be released later this year, and a book, "Chew on This: Everything You Don't Want to Know About Fast Food," aimed at kids and full of gag-inducing information on the fare sold by the Golden Arches and its brethren.
McDonald's managed to brush off the documentary "Super Size Me" without any visible damage to sales. But this time around, with the chain posting 35 consecutive months of positive same-store sales globally, it may not be so lucky. "They're worried about a backlash," said one insider. "When the consumer sees the movie, they will react. It would only need to take consumers to cut back one or two visits to affect the bottom line."
Impact of previous book
After "Super Size Me," McDonald's did remove super-size fries and sodas from its national menu, and some experts believe the film hurt sales among some demographics in some regions. And with pending lawsuits alleging food companies have damaged people's health, legislators calling for a ban on food marketing to children, and a number of critics insisting fast food be pulled from all hospitals and schools, the market leader can't afford to take the threat of Mr. Schlosser's movie and book lightly.
And it isn't. Even though details of the film are closely guarded -- it's being filmed under the code name "Coyote" -- McDonald's has gotten enough wind of the plot to warn franchisees. Both projects have been key topics in recent meetings at the Golden Arches, the latest two weeks ago, when McDonald's executives outlined plans to the U.S. franchisee advertising committee to fend off any potential damage. As it did during "Super Size Me," the marketer told franchisees that its communications will play up the company's menu variety, new products, and community involvement to remind consumers of the chain's more admirable activities.
"When things are topical and timely, it's a good opportunity to communicate to our operators and make sure they have information about things that affect our industry," said Richard Ellis, VP-communications for McDonald's U.S. He confirmed that the film and book were discussed with franchisees as part of a 2006 overview of communications and marketing plans.
'Potential reputational hit'
"The company is always concerned about anything that is a potential reputational hit," he added. "But neither the book nor the movie are out yet so it would be premature to speculate what that might look like." Mr. Ellis confirmed that legal recourse was discussed briefly, but "until we saw either, we wouldn't have a legal opinion."
What Mr. Ellis likely does know is that the film "Fast Food Nation" is a fictionalized drama, which promises to be of the same emotionally charged ilk as this year's Oscar-winning "Crash." When Mr. Ellis was laying out McDonald's strategy for defending itself, he told attendees that while there were no "direct hits" at the fast feeder in the film, there were some obvious allusions to the company, including a restaurant chain called Mickey's, according to one executive. Mr. Ellis wouldn't confirm specifics of the meeting.
Mr. Schlosser downplayed the film as a "character-driven, slice-of-life look at a small town in Colorado with a meatpacking plant and looks at the intersecting lives of people in this town." He directed further plot questions to the production company, Participant Films. Participant Films directed questions to Fox Searchlight, which bought the distribution rights in December.
According to studio insiders, the film focuses on an executive who works for Mickey's and is sent to investigate problems with its new sandwich, "The Big One," at a meatpacking plant where a trio of illegal Mexican immigrants work. Another plotline involves a school kid who sees the reality of her fast-food job and takes action to change the business.
Fall release for movie
Shot in restaurants in Mexico, Texas and Colorado, the film is expected to be released in the fall. It's already being hyped as a possible feature for the film festival circuit, including Cannes. Latin pop star Shakira is said to be penning the film's theme song.
Described as a "character study of the lives behind the facts and figures," according to Participant Production's description of the film, the ensemble cast of "Fast Food Nation" reads like a Sundance VIP list: Catalina Sandino Moreno, Ethan Hawke, Kris Kristofferson and Avril Lavigne are all involved. Greg Kinnear plays an executive from "Mickey's" in charge of developing "The Big One," a massive burger.
The insider said that franchisees were told that the film targets meat producers, the supply chain, marketing, stores, employees and animal treatment, as reported by McDonald's sources in the entertainment industry. While several executives contacted about the discussions with franchisees characterized them as routine, the insider described McDonald's as "panicked" about the film. Indeed, where industry executives could easily pooh-pooh the low-budget documentary "Super Size Me," it will be much more challenging for McDonald's to deflect the potential impact on consumer attitudes of a star-studded drama from one the hottest film producers on the planet. It doesn't help that the chain recently disclosed that its famous fries had higher trans-fat levels than previously thought and allergy-inducing gluten.
"McDonald's is concerned because the film can take creative license and people can perceive those licenses with direct associations to McDonald's," said another executive close to the situation. "It's hard to control."
And that's not the only threat the chain faces from Mr. Schlosser. By the time his "Fast Food Nation" hits theaters later this year, he will already have been through an intense promotional schedule for the May release of "Chew on This: Everything You Don't Want to Know About Fast Food." A spinoff title aimed at the middle school set, co-authored by Charles Wilson, the book lays out stomach-churning information that could cause kids to swear off beef, chicken, candy and soda (see story, P. 62).
McDonald's response to these threats will likely focus on moves it has already made. In the past two years it has rolled out more-healthful offerings like salads, milk and apple slices to offset its more indulgent fare, but it has also invested heavily in public relations platforms focused on healthful lifestyles and activity.
The fast feeder set a global advisory council on balanced active lifestyles and turned clown icon Ronald McDonald into a fitness ambassador. In addition, the chain put nutrition information on packaging and hosted a quality symposium and Internet campaign to tout and "bust" myths about its food quality.
Publis trust issues
Besides ongoing issues like trans fats, childhood obesity, and advertising to children, the movie and book have been added to the list of threats that could tarnish the Golden Arches and its public trust. As a result, McDonald's has put in place an action plan to combat the obesity and trust issues that the Schlosser projects could raise to another level. Executives from public relations, marketing, legal and advertising and PR agencies all have a role in the effort, said executives close to the situation.
Mr. Schlosser wants to hear from them. "I hope [McDonald's] engages in a substantive debate about the issues raised by the film and avoid personal attacks on the filmmakers, not to mention the threat of legal action," he said. "They get their point of view across every single day on TV. If they believe in democracy, they should welcome criticism and debate...and not engage in the kind of personal attacks that are attempts to distract people from the really important issues."
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T.L. Stanley contributed to this report.