McDonald's Enlists Olympian Gabby Douglas to Tout Egg White Delight

New McMuffin is Burger Chain's Latest Attempt to Attract Health-Minded Consumers

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McDonald's has hired 17-year-old Olympic gold medal gymnast Gabby Douglas to help promote its newest item -- the egg-white breakfast sandwich.

The world's largest restaurant chain by sales has tapped Ms. Douglas, who won the women's gymnastics all-around gold and helped the U.S. squad win the team event in London last year, as it attempts to attract diners with healthier items. The fast-food company, long criticized for selling junk food and targeting kids with its ads, has recently sought to clean up its image with apple slices in Happy Meals and a "Favorites Under 400 Calories" menu.

Gabby Douglas
Gabby Douglas

"The typical impression of McDonald's is that it's high calories and high cholesterol," Bob Dorfman, exec creative director at San Francisco-based Baker Street Advertising, said in an interview. "It makes sense to nab somebody like Gabby Douglas" because she espouses a healthy lifestyle and appeals to a younger crowd.

National marketing for the 250-calorie sandwich starts April 29 and includes print, billboard, radio and TV ads. One ad reads "Great taste, all yolks aside." Another says "We're turning breakfast on its head." Ms. Douglas won't appear in any of the ads -- she will promote the egg whites at McDonald's events, including one at a restaurant in New York City today.

"It's all about promoting choice," Noelle Laughter, director-marketing for McDonald's USA, said in an interview. "It's not a replacement of Egg McMuffin." She declined to say how much McDonald's is spending on the campaign and how much it paid the gymnast.

"I love egg whites as part of my normal breakfast routine, so the new Egg White Delight McMuffin is perfect for me,'' Ms. Douglas said in an e-mailed statement.

Douglas, who was 16 years-old when she won her medals, already had a promotion agreement with Kellogg Co., which put the gymnast on the cover of its Corn Flakes box.

The endorsement ended in November, Sandy Uridge, senior director of integrated promotions at the Battle Creek, Michigan- based company, said in an e-mailed statement. She declined to say how much Ms. Douglas was paid for the deal.

Nicknamed the "Flying Squirrel," Ms. Douglas made headlines last year when she told Jay Leno that she "splurged" on an McDonald's Egg McMuffin, which has 300 calories, to celebrate her Olympic wins. First Lady Michelle Obama, founder of the "Let's Move" campaign to fight childhood obesity, and also a guest on NBC's "The Tonight Show" that night, said in response: "You're setting me back, Gabby."

McDonald's revenue has stagnated during the last four quarters as the chain has faced more competition from Burger King Worldwide and Yum Brands' Taco Bell -- both of which are introducing healthier new items. Last week, the Big Mac seller posted first-quarter profit that was little changed as same-store sales slumped 1.2% in the U.S.

That weakness is continuing this month, and comparable-store sales are expected to decline in April, Chief Executive Officer Don Thompson said in a statement on April 19.

While McDonald's is promoting some healthier food, the bulk of sales still come from the chain's more familiar items, Peter Saleh, a New York-based analyst at Telsey Advisory Group, said in an interview.

"Nothing is ever really going to top the Big Mac or the Chicken McNuggets," he said. "Those are the core items that drive the majority of their business."

A Big Mac has 550 calories, while six Chicken McNuggets have 280 calories.

The suggested price of the new product is $2.69, while the 370-calorie Sausage McMuffin and Sausage Biscuit, with 430 calories, are on the chain's so-called dollar menu.

Promoting items with Olympic athletes can be risky because they don't have a lot of "staying power," Mr. Dorfman said.

When Ms. Douglas finished the games last year, "she was the darling of America," he said. "Now that's faded a little bit."

--Bloomberg News
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