There is no doubt that Big Food -- the marketers that sell soda, packaged meals and fast food -- has emerged as enemy No. 1 for public-health groups, which in the past couple years have applied constant pressure, blaming the companies for the nation's rising obesity epidemic. Even former adman Alex Bogusky has gotten into the act, with his new video that mocks soda campaigns.
On Thursday, a top marketer for McDonald's -- which has a constant target on its back -- sought to defuse the criticism by suggesting the fast feeder's advertising and products were a force for good, not evil, especially with the coveted kids' audience.
Critics ask, "Why are you communicating with kids at all?" Neil Golden, senior VP-chief marketing officer for McDonald's USA, told a meeting of the Association of National Advertisers in Orlando, Fla. "We want to be known for doing what is right for kids, for families, for all of our customers. We are committed to being a part of the dialogue. In fact, I can't imagine McDonald's not being invited to this critically important conversation about children's well-being."
Mr. Golden's presentation to the friendly audience of fellow marketers was evidence of just how much the food world has changed. Rather than touting the latest slick ad campaign or newest hamburger, he spent most of his time describing how the fast feeder was combating what he described as "misperceptions" pushed by opponents with "unlimited access to microphones."
"Those perceptions, or misperceptions, are sometimes the customer's reality," he said. "So we are committed to closing the gap, ensuring our customer knows what we stand for and they see those core values demonstrated in every connection with the brand."
He cited the marketer's recent move to give the Happy Meal a nutritional facelift with apple slices, fewer fries and low-fat dairy. The overhaul has been accompanied by new character-driven advertising by Publicis Groupe 's Leo Burnett.
By making apples a Happy Meal fixture, rather than just an option, the company saw results move from just 11% of consumers ordering the fruit to sparking an increase of some 500 million bags of apples "given to McDonald's youngest guests each year," Mr. Golden said. "That is McDonald's making a difference and being a leader."
The company has also sought to put a more human face on its supply chain by plugging its farmer-suppliers, such as ranchers and potato growers, in a campaign that made its debut earlier this year.
Mr. Golden told the ANA audience that that campaign would continue into next year. "We're very proud of this work," he said. "It's moving the needle. It's changing perceptions."
Whether it silences critics is another question.