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McDonald's Corp. is taking a subtle step away from a healthier menu with a new lettuce-and-tomato burger and the discontinuance of its slow-selling McLean Deluxe. But rival Wendy's International is preparing a much lighter offering-purportedly the first pita sandwich from the fast-feeders.

Wendy's new four-variety pita offering, including vegetable and chicken, is testing in Norfolk, Va., and Omaha. A Wendy's spokesman said there are no plans to roll out the pita sandwich, characterizing it as only one item "in our R&D itinerary."

Menu additions come as the industry tries to lift itself out of rampant value pricing, which has depressed margins across the board, affecting even McDonald's.

The industry giant's comparable-store sales have been flat and McDonald's hopes to jump-start 1996 with a massive marketing campaign introducing its newest burger, Arches Deluxe.

The company already has introduced Arches Deluxe in Canada. A 30-second TV spot there featured young McDonald's employees brainstorming a name for the new hamburger; one daydreaming teen sees the famed McDonald's arches in his imagination and comes up with Arches Deluxe.

Cossette Communications Marketing, Toronto, created that spot, which ran for only a month.

In the U.S., Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis, has been awarded the $75 million Arches Deluxe business (AA, Jan. 29), and its creative also will run in Canada to support the national launch there.

Industry analysts said McDonald's needs dramatic product news that will stand out from its current practice of promoting a specialty burger of the month.

"It's been a long time since McDonald's has really offered anything new," said Revell Horsey, an analyst with Alex. Brown & Sons. "With all the competitors focusing on price, you have to offer more."

"Everybody's offering value now," said Anton Brenner, an analyst with UBS Securities. McDonald's needs "product excitement."

But some aren't certain the sourdough bun, lettuce and tomato burger is exciting enough.

Restaurant consultant Ron Paul, president of Technomics, said the product hardly qualifies as cutting-edge. McDonald's itself has already marketed-and discontinued-a similar product.

Fallon beat out Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, for the launch, giving the agency its first McDonald's assignment. Fallon also is expected to handle media planning. It's not known if Fallon or Burnett will do buying; Burnett handles most U.S. media buying for McDonald's.

In yet another sign of increasing pressure on the fast-food king, McDonald's has asked a number of its regional agencies to present some ideas for national advertising in its search for additional ways to generate interest among consumers.

A number of years ago, one of those agencies, Davis, Ball & Colombatto, Los Angeles, created the "Mac Tonite" campaign and it became a national effort. Brad Ball, formerly president of that agency, joined McDonald's as senior VP-marketing USA late last year.

A McDonald's spokesman-and executives at some of those agencies-downplayed the significance of the regional shops' increasing role.

"We meet periodically with regional agencies to get their input," said Chuck Ebeling, assistant VP-corporate communications. "There's nothing different about this....We'd be nuts if we didn't get the input of agencies around the country. It's part of our regular process of planning."

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