For once, maybe some consumer groups and parents won't be angry at what company is using popular cartoon characters to peddle. McDonald's (NYSE: MCD ) plans a monthlong campaign integrating Shrek the Third to push healthy choices on its kids menu.
McDonald's and DreamWorks Animation's (NYSE: DWA ) campaign will feature the popular Shrek lead character on packaging, including Happy Meals, for apple slices, low-fat milk, salads -- and, OK, all-white-meat Chicken McNuggets, too. McDonald's also said that Shrek's image will appear in games that promote physical activity on its Web site.
It's logical that McDonald's is concerned by how and what it markets to kids. Controversies over kid-targeting ads featuring cartoon characters are hardly new; Reynolds American's (NYSE: RAI ) R.J. Reynolds' old "Joe Camel" campaign, for one, drew considerable heat for having a kid-friendly cartoon character push an unhealthy product.
McDonald's is no stranger to kid-oriented marketing, of course. The iconic Ronald McDonald unabashedly appeals to children. From my own childhood, I recall the McDonaldLand campaign, featuring such familiar characters as Mayor McCheese, Grimace, and the Hamburglar. (Back in the 1970s, McDonald's even lost a lawsuit against Sid and Marty Krofft, who charged that the McDonald's campaign infringed on their fantastic, live-action H.R. Pufnstuf characters.)
Amid increasing attention to childhood obesity, and growing consumer scrutiny of companies that market to kids, McDonald's move makes a lot of sense. Consider that in the U.K., bans of advertising that targets children have emerged. Such tensions there and in Europe could certainly hurt companies like Burger King (NYSE: BKC ) and other fast-food giants.
Given the public's concern about childhood obesity, and the high-calorie nature of many fast foods, McDonald's and DreamWorks are avoiding PR problems by using the Shrek image to raise awareness of healthier kids' menu options and the importance of physical exercise. Whether kids choose these options, Shrek or no Shrek, is a whole other matter, of course. However, McDonald's nod to this tricky issue should at least leave shareholders a bit less green around the gills.
Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned.