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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Monitoring the makeover

Gina Piccalo Los Angeles Times

When Ronald McDonald appeared in a new TV ad in June, outfitted in a sporty version of his trademark yellow suit, snowboarding and skateboarding, even juggling fruit, the popular icon for the fast-food giant seemed to be having something of an identity crisis.

There were no French fries and no sign of the Hamburglar or Mayor McCheese. Suddenly, the clown-faced character who once thrived in the land of milkshake volcanoes and apple-pie trees was being described by company marketing executives as “an ambassador for a balanced, active lifestyle” and “a powerful force for good.”

This makeover, McDonald’s officials say, is just the beginning. Nearly every aspect of the company’s new marketing strategy centers on health.

The home of the Big Mac now claims to be America’s No. 1 distributor of apples, thanks to its new Apple Dippers, slices served with caramel sauce, and a new Fruit and Walnut Salad — a bowl of apples, grapes and yogurt advertised in Vogue magazine with illustrations of lithe young women. There’s a new line of “premium” salads (17 types of lettuce!) and chicken sandwiches. Customers can now substitute bottled water and apple slices for soft drinks and fries or skip the bun and get a lettuce-wrapped burger.

McDonald’s also has hired as consultants Oprah Winfrey’s personal trainer Bob Greene and best-selling author and nutritionist Dr. Dean Ornish of the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, Calif., to help design fitness programs and promote good eating habits. A new line of McDonald’s skateboards and bikes is in the works, and there’s a new “Bag a McMeal” Web site (http://app.mcdonalds.com/bagamcmeal) that calculates the nutritional value of any McDonald’s meal.

“Stay tuned,” says Bridget Coffing, a McDonald’s spokeswoman. “There’s more to come.”

McDonald’s campaign signals a major shift in marketing that, if successful, could help redefine fast food. If this global behemoth can effectively sell consumers on its healthier menu, competing chains such as Burger King and Carl’s Jr. will likely follow. Last month , the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Health and Human Services held a two-day forum to look at childhood obesity and the effect of fast-food marketing on kids.

The real challenge is to convince the public that McDonald’s, which a half-century ago pioneered the quick-serve genre commonly derided as “junk food,” is now the place to go for good nutrition.

So far, the 2-year-old campaign shows signs of success. McDonald’s says that it has boosted business by nearly 2 million customers a day since 2002 and that worldwide sales in restaurants open at least one year jumped 6.9 percent last year.

Ornish, a well-regarded researcher in heart-disease prevention, brought credibility to the campaign when he publicly praised the company for promoting good health. Even one of McDonald’s harshest critics, Bob McCannon, director of the New Mexico Media Literacy Project, a media activism group that trains elementary and high-school educators, has granted the fast-food giant grudging praise, saying “there’s some value to promoting activity.”

McDonald’s stops short of linking the campaign to the obesity epidemic in the United States. And it has rejected the idea that it was influenced by filmmaker Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 documentary “Super Size Me,” which detailed the health problems he experienced after eating an all-McDonald’s diet for 30 days.

In interviews, company representatives shied away from portraying the marketing campaign as a change in direction for the company. “The things that we’re doing are nothing new,” says Ken Barun, McDonald’s senior vice president of social responsibility. “It’s been about choice, variety and quality for us for a long time.”

McDonald’s has offered nutritional information and food exchange lists for diabetics and dieters since the 1970s and has sponsored sporting events for decades. Salads were introduced in 1986 and, in the 1990s, the company launched a nutritional campaign for children and added a nutrition section to its Web site.

Still, some marketing analysts and nutrition experts are skeptical that enough McDonald’s customers will order a salad when tempted by the smell of cheeseburgers and fries. They also question whether the company can be successful by, in effect, having it both ways – keeping its burger-loving customers happy while hawking yogurt and salads.

“There are aspects of what they’re doing that I think are very helpful, which I think will make it easier for Americans to eat well,” says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit health-advocacy group and critic of the fast-food industry. “Some other aspects of their efforts, I think, are really more about marketing than about promoting Americans’ health and physical activity.”

For 50 years, McDonald’s has primarily counted on burgers and fries to drive its revenue and fuel its expansion to 119 countries. Although Americans have long had a love-hate relationship with fast food, growing concerns over health issues now pose a seemingly larger threat to the chain’s strategy. As the nation’s childhood obesity rate continued to soar, doubling and tripling among elementary and middle-school students during the past 30 years, McDonald’s became a target of critics.

McDonald’s, charges Dave Morris, a longtime critic of the chain, is “continuing to contribute to the serious, long-term health crisis of Western populations and increasingly throughout the world, wherever fast-food chains are spreading and undermining traditional cuisine.”

With Helen Steel, Morris was involved in a 10-year libel lawsuit that centered on McDonald’s marketing practices in the United Kingdom. In 1997, a judge ruled in favor of McDonald’s, which had accused the two activists of libeling the company. But the judge also found that Morris and Steel had proved, among other things, that McDonald’s misled consumers by advertising its food as healthy and exploited children with its marketing strategy.

A 2001 study published in the International Journal of Obesity found that adolescents who ate fast food three times a week consumed up to 40 percent more calories than those who did not.

In 2002, two teenagers from the Bronx borough of New York filed a class action against McDonald’s, blaming the chain for making them fat. (The case was dismissed; then, in January, it was revived by a federal appeals court. A McDonald’s spokesman has called the suit “frivolous.”)

In late 2004, a 15-year study published in the British medical journal the Lancet suggested that fast food increased the risk of obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

At the same time, the company faced challenges from other fast-food chains and the mad cow disease scare. After more than a year of sluggish sales that concluded with the company’s first-ever quarterly loss, McDonald’s began to implement change in 2002.

It started gradually. The company promised to use oil with lower levels of trans fatty acids and saturated fat. The Fruit ‘n Yogurt Parfait was expanded to all its restaurant location menus, and the company enhanced its Web site, enabling customers to track the nutritional values of any combination of McDonald’s foods.

“We set out three major pillars: menu choice and quality of our products; education on nutrition and balance, and physical activity,” Barun says.

With this came Winfrey’s trainer Greene, entree-sized “Premium Salads” featuring Paul Newman dressings, and the white meat Chicken McNuggets. The company announced it was directing its beef and chicken suppliers to phase out the use of growth-promoting antibiotics.

A more globally focused nutrition director was appointed, along with an advisory council of nutritionists, pediatricians and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, among others.

In early 2004, as the buzz was building for Spurlock’s “Super Size Me,” company officials arranged a news conference at the National Press Club to announce a new slogan: “Balanced Active Lifestyles … it’s what I eat and what I do.”

While the new campaign is clearly relevant to Americans seeking more healthful food, the question remains whether they’ll go to McDonald’s for that good nutrition.

“The last time they tried to sell salads, nobody bought them because nobody goes there for that,” says Deborah Cohn, professor of marketing at Yeshiva University’s Sy Syms School of Business. “What really works for them is hamburgers.”

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