To see how kids would react to a fleeting glimpse of Justin Timberlake and his voice-over in the new spot, I enlisted the opinions of my three granddaughters and their friends. Except for the very positive remarks of Candace, 14, who has attended a Justin concert and written his birthday in my pocket appointment book, the verdict was underwhelming. And even Candace said that without Justin the commercial would be "terrible."
What I discovered was that McDonald's may have a problem beyond advertising, at least among younger kids. Ramsay, 11, and Emy, 8, seemed incensed by McDonald's efforts to sell its food at all. Said Ramsay, a newly elected representative of her sixth grade class, about the spot: "I think it's really stupid, and they are trying to attract kids to eat McDonald's food, even though it is really, really bad to eat that." Added Emy: "I think it's bad for kids, because it gets kids to eat junky and unhealthy foods."
McDonald's is trying to show "it would be cool to eat McDonald's instead of healthy food," Emy told me. "Just because really cool people are in it doesn't mean that you should do it, too."
I asked what "I'm lovin' it" referred to. Emy said, "the food, but I don't see anyone eating it in the commercial."
Ramsay's friend Hayley, 11, liked the spot. "I thought it was pretty good, but it was sort of hard to follow." I asked her what the ad was trying to show. "They're living the new McDonald's. It's showing people having fun. I think it gets that message across."
Among Candace's teenage friends, Maddy, 14, said she thought the commercial was "new and interesting. I've never really seen a commercial done like that. A lot of things could have been in other commercials; it didn't sell McDonald's as much as it should have."
Caitlin, 14, said she didn't like it. "Justin Timberlake never was in it. It definitely would have done better if he were singing and eating a Big Mac. It didn't look professional. We could have done that." And Ave, 15, said, "If you turned on the TV in the middle of the commercial you'd have no clue what it was about. It wasn't clear about what it meant. What were they lovin'? I just didn't get it."
The big risk is that McDonald's strategy is an all-or-nothing bet on the youth market. I think I can say without fear of contradiction that the commercial is off-putting to most of the non-target market-for the reasons Bob Garfield so vividly described. If it doesn't register with kids, the corporate campaign could have a negative impact overall, and McDonald's will have spent $100 million for the privilege of alienating vast swatches of its customers.
The irony is McDonald's is doing just fine without the new effort. Its comparable sales rose 3.8% in August thanks to its new salads (definitely not aimed at the kid market).
So McDonald's sales are improving, based partly on adult fare, and now the company is getting ready to crank up a hippity-hoppity melange of freneticism that will surely drive many customers from its portals.
Is it too late to call the whole thing off?