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McDonald's isn't lovin' it much

A new advertisement to be shown in Washington DC (US) made by the health lobby group, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) shows an overweight, middle aged man lying in the morgue, with a half-eaten hamburger in his hand. Some lame acting by a weeping woman (the assumption is that she is related to him) and a nodding doctor, rounds out a generally unremarkable execution.

At the end of the 30 second commercial, McDonald’s golden arches are traced around the dead man’s feet with the text, “I was lovin’ it”, which works as a pun on McDonald’s slogan, “I’m lovin’ it.” A voice-over intones that “high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart attacks. Tonight, make it vegetarian.”

At face value, and amongst those who think that consumers are rational, thoughtful creatures, who just need to be reminded, and will change their behaviour, this seems like a reasonable approach. Frighten the masses. Get them to change their eating behaviour.

But, it is unlikely to have the desired effect of getting people to stop eating junk food, and eat vegetarian.

Rather than getting people to eat more healthily, a lot of research in the marketing area suggests that this type of advertising actually has the opposite effect of increasing attitudinal loyalty to the brand, particularly amongst regular users. Part of the explanation is related to the need for the ego to protect itself against any attacks on previous decision-making (thus avoiding or combating feelings of guilt), another component is the effect of promoting the market leading brand.

Research by Ian Skurnik from Toronto University and colleagues, and published in the Journal of Consumer Behaviour in 2005, found that warnings about false claims of pharmaceutical drugs found that consumers were likely to remember the brand of the drug, but assume that there were positive associations with the drug in the longer term. It was the unintended effect of repetition that came with the claim itself, that resulted in the consumers conjuring a positive association with the drug.

Combine this with the double-jeopardy effect, where users of the market leading brand are more likely to be more loyal, and the brand has more users, and the McDonald’s brand might actually benefit somewhat from a poorly executed commercial such as this one, particularly from current heavy users.

Often the most interesting thing to watch is the corporation’s response, and how the media report it. According to AP, McDonald’s spokeswoman, Bridget Coffing said, “This commercial is outrageous, misleading and unfair to all consumers. McDonald’s trusts our customers to put such outlandish propaganda in perspective, and to make food and lifestyle choices that are right for them.”

There is debate about whether the advertisement will even be allowed to air, with McDonald’s seeking to prevent the PCRM from using their trademark.


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