Burnett hit for advice to avoid gay topics on TV

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In another embarrassing stumble related to client McDonald's Corp., Leo Burnett Co. distributed an internal report that in part talks about avoiding gay TV content for the fast-food chain.

Burnett apologized for the document after a copy was obtained by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, which blasted it as "condescending and offensive."


The 30-page Burnett report on TV ratings systems and parental guidelines, part of which was obtained by Advertising Age, observed that gay characters in programming are "becoming more difficult to avoid."

McDonald's, it said, has "traditionally avoided homosexual content when possible" because it is a "hot topic" for conservative activist Rev. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association and because of "concern from owner/operators--particularly in [the] Bible Belt."

Within the report's two pages dealing with the issue of gay characters on TV, a recommendation was made to "set parameters to insure McDonald's continues to appear in a suitable environment."

The report went to Burnett national media buyers and planners.

GLAAD Managing Director William Waybourn said the report "shows ignorance or prejudice--neither of which is good for an agency of this size. When they talked about Donald Wildmon, they end up putting themselves into hostage situations and giving [the Rev. Wildmon] the key . . . They and the media give Wildmon credit that he can't take for getting advertisers to drop out."


McDonald's was ranked as the fifth-largest advertiser on ABC's "Ellen" during the first half of the 1996-97 prime-time TV season by Competitive Media Reporting.

McDonald's did not comment on the report, but a spokeswoman said: "We have advertised on programs that include gay content, including `Friends' and `Roseanne.' We have advertised on `Ellen' in the past and will advertise on `Ellen' in the future."

In a letter dated April 15, Burnett Exec VP-U.S. Media Director Robert Brennan apologized to GLAAD for the report, which was not specifically requested by McDonald's.

"The document clearly demonstrated our need at Leo Burnett to discuss gay and lesbian issues in an appropriate and sensitive manner. I've taken steps to ensure this," he said.

Mr. Brennan promised he would "implement measures to improve how we discuss gay and lesbian media, programming and marketing" by July and that he would incorporate gay and lesbian sensitivity into the agency's "Improve U" diversity training.

In 1995, Burnett added "sexual orientation" to its non-discrimination statement, a gauge that gays and lesbians use to measure a company's sensitivity to them.


While Burnett handles the new "My McDonald's" campaign, expected to receive the bulk of the chain's $600 million in U.S. spending, the agency has faced difficulties with the client during the recent past over a media buying snafu.

Burnett was on the hot seat last fall for a $20 million audience shortfall by its media department, a mistake McDonald's called "inexcusable" at the time.

Also, the agency lost face when the $75 million Arch Deluxe account was awarded to Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis, though Burnett gained the business in February after Fallon left the McDonald's roster.

In a statement issued Friday, McDonald's said it still characterizes its relationship with Burnett as "quite strong."

Although GLAAD has accepted the Burnett letter, it still questions the spirit of the report.

The agency "kept wanting us to put it into the context of the larger document--I'm not sure what context you could put discrimination into and make it acceptable," Mr. Waybourn said.

Contributing: Jeanne Whalen, Pat Sloan.

Copyright April 1997, Crain Communications Inc.

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