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McDonald’s Gets Grilled Over “Documentary”

Filed under Advertising, Branding, Marketing, Promotion

McDonald’s efforts to defend the quality of the food it serves and the suppliers who provide it have the chain embroiled in controversy again. This time the debate rages in Australia over what McDonald’s claims was an independent documentary about it but that critics claim was simply an hour-long advertorial.

The program, “McDonald’s Gets Grilled,” aired April 2 on Australia’s Channel 7. It begins in a studio with six people who believe they are taking part in a food documentary. Their first task has been to prepare meals from an array of provided ingredients, after which they are surprised to learn from host Steve Liebmann that those ingredients all came from McDonald’s. One middle-age participant confesses he hasn’t eaten at McDonald’s in 20 years because of its “totally unsatisfying food.”

Their next task? “Go out and examine McDonald’s food and get the truth about what goes into it,” Liebmann tells them. “Ask all the questions you want, and keep asking until you get the answers you want. See you back here in a week.” Their journeys take them to McDonald’s restaurants, McDonald’s suppliers and even to a sit-down Q&A session with Catriona Noble, CEO of McDonald’s Australia.

WTFN, which produced the program, claims it did so with McDonald’s funding but without any McDonald’s control over participants or content. Channel 7’s website describes the program this way: “Fast food is full of fat, sugar and preservatives. It’s slowly killing us, contributing to a worldwide epidemic of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. This documentary targets one of the world’s most famous but equally controversial companies, McDonald’s. Six members of the public are given an all-access pass to McDonald’s and set out to ask the tough questions about what goes into the food they eat. As we follow this intriguing journey it will be more than a program about fast food. It’s a social experiment. One that tests whether people, faced with overwhelming evidence challenging their long-held prejudices, can ever accept the truth.”

Host Steve Liebmann briefs the show's participants on their mission.

Critics sum up the program in many fewer words, calling the program an advertorial at best, a one-hour commercial at worst. Sydney’s The Telegraph quoted an unidentified executive at a rival television network as calling Channel 7’s airing of the program “the worst display by a network that I have seen in years in terms of agreeing to run a blatant advertorial program like this. It’s a competitive, do-or-die business but there are also morals and this was just pushing it too far.”

McDonald’s Noble and WTFN strongly defend the program. On the McDonald’s Australia website, she writes, “In recent years, McDonald’s Australia has been evolving its menu and cooking methods, and responding to our customers needs, but there is still some confusion around how our food is made. We participated in this documentary to give Australians the chance to ask the tough questions and get honest answers, independently of McDonald’s.”

In a series of questions and answers that follows, McDonald’s further explains its involvement this wayWe’re proud of the quality, locally sourced food we serve. We’ve got nothing to hide. And we thought this would be the best way to show people for themselves the reality around our food – where it’s from and how it’s prepared.

“We wanted to open our doors and invite our customers to see how it all comes together for them–from visiting the local farmers we source our raw produce from, to showing how we make our burger buns and patties to going behind the counters of our restaurants.”

McDonald’s recently launched a TV campaign (at left) in Australia–as it also has done in the U.S., the UK, Germany and elsewhere–to spotlight farmers and ranchers who supply its foodstuffs. Spots from agency DDB Sydney use the tagline “It all comes together at Macca’s,” using the chain’s nickname there.

Further, the chain insists that “the documentary was produced by independent production company WTFN, and while we were required to work with suppliers and staff involved in the filming, we were not at all involved in the recruitment of the participants, their personal opinions about McDonald’s, the questions they asked, the answers they received or the creative outcome of the documentary.” McDonald’s has not disclosed how much it paid for the documentary. The chain spent $75 million on measured-media advertising in Australia in 2010, according to Nielsen.

McD's Australia CEO Catriona Noble

Not surprisingly, “McDonald’s Gets Grilled” took a pounding on Twitter. One tweet reportedly sniped, “it’s a sad day when the ad becomes the program, in primetime.” The Age quoted Geoff Brown, executive director of the Screen Producers Association of Australia, as saying, ”From our point of view, it’s an advertorial and not a documentary.”

But WTFN Producer Wayne Dyer told TV Tonight that McDonald’s decision to let an independent company dig into its workings is “probably one of the boldest moves by a major company.” He says WTFN told McDonald’s “they had to let us make a programme that was credible, that had integrity, with editorial control and at the end of the day we were the ones who knew what a network would buy. It took a little convincing, but I believe it was a very bold risk.”

“McDonald’s Gets Grilled” drew a fairly large audience. According to media website Mumbrella, the program “made the top five most-watched shows in the 18-49 and 16-39 demographics. It aired during the 9: 30 pm time slot, beating an episode of NCIS, which rated with 620,000, Q&A on ABC1, which claimed 579,000, and Person of Interest on Nine, which took 318,000.”

McDonald’s has dabbled in creating entertainment programming before, including the Australian “Macca’s Chef” online program in 2009, the 2010 series “Dreaming in Mono” that aired in Scandinavia, and last year’s “Originals” series that ran on McDonald’s/Canada’s Facebook page. However, “McDonald’s Gets Grilled” is the chain’s first documentary-style programming.