Fast Food Nation

Fast-food clients love food porn: Close-ups of juicy, charred meat, bright-red ripe tomato slices, cheese oozing out of a crisp taco. In those mouthwatering “hero shots,” the goods look far more tasty than what consumers are likely to pick up at a fast-food chain. Agencies, of course, love a more interesting creative challenge, and they’ve come up with some enduring catch phrases (“Where’s the beef?”) and mascots (Ronald McDonald, Taco Bell’s Chihuahua). The tug-of-war between those two parties has taken on a new twist. With lawsuits and headline-grabbing accusations, consumers and advocacy groups are starting a backlash against the fattening, artery-clogging menus at the same time that customers are looking for more variety. Last year, traditional hamburger-restaurant sales grew 2 percent to $47.5 billion, while sales at sandwich restaurants like Subway jumped 8 percent to nearly $16 billion, according to consultancy Technomic Information Services. Both Wendy’s and Burger King announced new, more healthy options this month, and McDonald’s made a show of hiring Oprah trainer Bob Greene to represent its Healthy Lifestyles program. As well, three of the five fast-food clients in this roundup—Wendy’s, Burger King and Subway—have switched agencies in the past year, while McDonald’s plucked a German roster shop out of obscurity for its first global campaign, the $200 million “I’m lovin’ it” extravaganza that broke this month. Are Justin Timberlake and shots of lean grilled chicken the future?

Client: McDonald’s

Agency: Heye & Partner, Unterhaching, Germany

Lead Creatives: CEO and partner Jurgen Knauss, cd Markus Lange, cd Andreas Forberger

For years McDonald’s ads have epitomized the heartfelt, story-based commercial, summed up by its best-known tag, “You deserve a break today.” That approach has been discarded for the first global campaign in its 48-year corporate history. “Nothing is traditional anymore at McDonald’s,” says Dean Barrett, svp of global marketing. “If it’s traditional, then we’re not addressing [our target].”

The company is focusing on increasing visits to current locations rather than to new restaurants, and key to that strategy is to make the brand more hip and relevant. In the “I’m lovin’ it” campaign that broke this month, German shop Heye & Partner’s slice-of-life vignettes show “all the different pleasures in life, which is the same in the U.S., Asia and Europe,” says cd Markus Lange. “McDonald’s is one of those little pleasures.”

Set to a hip-hop tune sung by Justin Timberlake and others, clips include a woman karate-kicking a shake out of a friend’s hand and a man “driving” a convertible that’s being towed by a truck. McDonald’s products and icons are ancillary, appearing as props in the scenes or in the background.

Chicago shops Leo Burnett and DDB are adapting the ads for the U.S. market. The first spot broke a week ago, and two more roll out today.

Client: Wendy’s

Agency: McCann-Erickson, New York

Lead Creatives: Gcd/copywriter Jim McKennan, gcd/art director Paul Basile

The Dublin, Ohio, chain pioneered the value-menu concept in 1989 with ads pushing price. It’s still emphasizing value, and for the first time is also touting its lower-fat offerings. “Now it’s not about price alone,” says Don Calhoon, evp of marketing. “There are people who count calories and grams of fat.”

Wendy’s moved its account to McCann-Erickson late last year, but Bates’ “It’s better here” campaign—and its strategy of emphasizing variety, quality and price—remains largely intact, besides the nod to health consciousness. McCann’s first work broke in March; its most recent, three spots that debuted Sept. 5, focuses on the 99-cent Super Value Menu and its healthier items (baked potato, side salad and chili). “Wendy’s hears what the consumer is saying” in terms of health and budget, says art director Paul Basile.

Each spot is set in an office lunchroom, where employees are brown-bagging, microwaving leftovers, munching on snack bars or eating Wendy’s. “Food envy” escalates as everyone notices how much the Wendy’s lunchers are enjoying their food. “There’s a wave of sensible eating washing across the country,” says copywriter Jim McKennan. “In a lunchroom, you get a cross-section of how this change is taking place.”

More Super Value Menu ads break later in the fall, also emphasizing the low-fat, fewer-calories theme.

As a summer campaign aired touting the “lighter fare” salads and chicken sandwiches, Wendy’s same-store sales rose 2.1 percent in July and 1.9 percent in August.

Client: Taco Bell

Agency: Foote, Cone & Belding, San Francisco and Irvine, Calif.

Lead Creatives: Gcd Matt Reinhard,

cd Chip Fuller, cd and art director Scott Larson, art director Brent Thomas, copywriters Christian Sternal and Mike Towell

The Chihuahua went out with TBWA\ Chiat\Day three years ago, and these days the menu items and the ingredients in them are the stars of FCB’s work.

The ads for the Yum! Brands chain are still sprinkled with humor, but now “it always starts with food,” says Jeff Fox, the $200 million client’s vp of national marketing. “That’s our main differentiating point: great Mexican-inspired food.” (And thus the “Think outside the bun” tag, introduced in 2001.) An ad for the spicy chicken burrito, for example, shows the chicken getting shredded and simmered in spices, and salsa being prepared.

“In the beginning we tried to do some things that were funny first, and food may have been secondary,” says gcd Matt Reinhard, citing a 2-year-old ad in which men with funny cowboy twangs ate grilled-steak sandwiches. “Even though they were talking about steak, consumers didn’t get why steak was important.” An ad that broke a year ago, in contrast, showed how the steak is prepared.

Two current commercials for the grilled stuffed burrito feature people in cars, buses and benches that are tipped over to show how substantial the meal is. The light visual humor is mixed with plenty of product shots. A spot for the new spicy chicken burrito shows a group of men eating in an apartment that has a Venus flytrap, which slurps Pepsi after one of the guys gives the plant a taste of the burrito. “We wanted to talk about the spiciness, but we didn’t want people’s heads turning red,” Reinhard says.

Client: Burger King

Agency: Young & Rubicam, New York

Lead creatives: Worldwide cd Michael Patti, copywriter Kevin Fahey and art director Robert DuFour, copywriter Bob Potesky and art director Bob Steigelman, copywriter Steve Hersh and art director Eric Glickman, copywriter Linda Yellin

Y&R’s first work after landing lead duties on Burger King in the spring harkened back to the chain’s heritage and made a virtue of flame-broiling. TV spots, some of which were directed by Joe Pytka, had an Americana feel, depicting people standing by their grills. The message was simple: People are passionate about food, and grilling heightens the experience. This was encapsulated in the new tag: “The fire is ready.”

“It represented great foundation work for us,” says Russ Klein, BK’s chief marketing officer. That campaign idea will be “a framework to introduce new products,” he says. (Y&R declined to discuss the work, deferring to Klein.)

Summer ads, such as a spot for the Chicken Caesar Club, were more focused on BK’s offerings. Value messages also became a part of the mix. The latest TV and print campaign, which broke Sept. 21, touts the freshness and low fat content of a new line of Chicken Baguette sandwiches (billed as having just 5 grams of fat). “Flavor from fire-grilling … not from fat,” read the print ads.

Upcoming spots will emphasize taste via nationally recognized chefs, such as Rick Bayless, who have endorsed BK’s new sandwiches. Klein cites the “authenticity” of the association with Bayless, noting that the Southwest-style chef is known for fire-grilling food.

BK, which spends about $350 million a year on ads, will be putting all of its marketing muscle behind the sandwiches, at least through November. No burger ads will run during the first eight weeks of the launch, Klein says.

Client: Subway

Agency: Fallon, Minneapolis

Lead Creatives: Ecd David Lubars, gcd/copywriter Greg Hahn, gcd/art director Dave Damman

Dancing in underwear is not often mentioned in fast-food ads. But in one spot from Subway’s new agency, Fallon, spokesman Jared Fogle is seen in a fancy restaurant, eating a big meal. He rationalizes that he can indulge since he ate Subway for lunch; inspired, another patron uses the same rationale to justify dancing in his underwear at a nightclub.

The ad “pushes the [humor] a lot further than we’ve gone before,” says Chris Carroll, marketing director of the Subway Franchisee Advertising Fund Trust. “If you do vanilla advertising, you’re never going to get any complaints, but you’re also never going to get anyone to notice you.”

The Publicis Groupe shop, which Subway selected for its $220 million account in July, maintains the “Eat fresh” tag and the three-year spokesman used in ads from incumbent Euro RSCG MVBMS Partners. Fallon’s first work broke Sept. 21 and rolls out in the next several weeks. “It’s very easy for a new agency to come in and throw out what was done before, but that’s not always the best idea,” says ecd David Lubars.

But since Jared’s weight-loss story is old news, some ads give him a different role: an advice counselor. In one series of spots, people ask Jared anything from what to do with a hideous monkey lamp to what to do when a parachute fails. Sitting under an “Ask Jared” sign, Fogle then shares his wisdom (in the parachute scenario, he simply screams).

Another group of spots addresses the indulgence theme, with people justifying odd behavior via the line, “It’s OK, I had Subway.” “Eating healthy can be delicious and fun,” Lubars says of the strategy. “Who wants to feel bad about what they eat?”