McDonald's decision to sponsor VH1's new "Dating Naked" reality show is consistent with a long-term trend that the Parents Television Council has observed with great concern for the last few years.
Forget a toy prize; would you like nudity with your Happy Meal?
That's what McDonald's is "serving" in its quest to get more customers with its sponsorship of VH1's new "Dating Naked" reality show.
If you haven't heard of this show, it features contestants who date each other in the nude, with the nudity being partially obscured through pixilation – a non-family-friendly show if there ever was one.
McDonald's advertisements were found on the July 17th premiere episode and nearly all of the repeat airings of that episode.
The juxtaposition of this historically family brand with such sexually graphic content is shocking, to say the least, but unfortunately, it is consistent with a long-term trend that the Parents Television Council has observed with great concern for the last few years. (See earlier story)
For generations, McDonald's was the number-one fast-food destination for families – especially those with young children. McDonald's menu and restaurants were kid-friendly, but more than that McDonalds seemed to go out of its way to maintain a wholesome, family-friendly image.
While competitors like Burger King and Carl's Jr. advertised heavily on raunchy programming and deployed sleazy ad campaigns in their quest to lure young male consumers, McDonald's kept its ad campaigns clean and seemed to work hard to ensure that its ads were placed in family-quality television programming.
It is no coincidence that during those years, McDonald's outperformed its competitors by leaps and bounds –QSR Magazinereported, "If Subway were suddenly to merge with Burger King and Starbucks, McDonald's would still rank No. 1." And really, it comes down to simple math: a family of four or five (or more) is going to consume more food than one 17-year-old boy.
In recent years, however, McDonald's advertising practices have placed the company among the worst in the nation. McDonald's ads are too often seen supporting violent or sexually graphic programming.
In 2007, the Parents Television Council ranked McDonald's as one of the ten best television sponsors because of its avoidance of graphically violent, profane, or sexually explicit programming. But for the past three years, McDonald's has ranked among the worst TV sponsors.
Not coincidentally, the restaurant's sales are down significantly.
Perhaps that's why, according to the Chicago Business Journal, McDonald's will be re-evaluating its marketing strategy due to poor sales. McDonald's "will try to become a 'more trusted and respected brand,' in the words of CEO Don Thompson, by re-evaluating its customer service, menu, and marketing practices."
That sounds like a step in the right direction. After all, "respected brand" and "naked dating" don't go together very well.
A few years ago, the Association of National Advertisers' Alliance for Family Entertainment conducted market research and found that when companies that are perceived to be family-oriented advertise on programs with adult content, it hurts their brand equity significantly – 30 percent – as compared to when the ad is viewed in a family-oriented show.
The study also revealed that brands were perceived negatively when ads appeared alongside adult content, and that perceived hypocrisy between ad elements and programming content increases negative reactions. "When ads with kids and families depicted in them were placed in adult content, the results were more polarizing than when those spots which were primarily product or individual focused were placed in adult content," according to the study.
McDonald's legacy is that of a brand that cares about communities. Founder Ray Kroc said, "The basis for our entire business is that we are ethical, truthful and dependable. It takes time to build a reputation. We are not promoters. We are business people with a solid, permanent, constructive ethical program that will be in style … years from now even more than it is today."
How tragic for McDonald's that the wonderful legacy left by Mr. Kroc, the generations of good will and built with consumers over decades, has been demolished by an irresponsible marketing strategy.
Unless and until McDonald's returns to being a responsible advertiser, I advise consumers to take their business to competitors whose values more closely reflect their own. Wendy's, for example, has consistently matched its positive brand image with responsible media-buying standards. And they are quickly catching up with McDonald's in terms of sales, while returning higher value to shareholders.
To be more respected, McDonald's needs to re-establish the trust of customers – and a key strategy in re-establishing that trust must be remembering the families that have been the cornerstone of the McDonald's brand.
Tim Winter is the president of the Parents Television Council, a nonpartisan education organization advocating responsible entertainment.
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