June 6th, 2009

Hollywood Continues Its Fast-Food Binge

By T.L. Stanley
BrandWeek

Family entertainment giant Disney took a stand, several years back, by not renewing a decade-long marketing deal with McDonald’s and flushing fast food and high-calorie snacks out of its promotional system as the childhood obesity debate raged.

But now, even as there appears to be stepped-up interest from the federal government over marketing to children, no one has followed Disney’s lead.  In fact, with categories like autos out of the picture, Hollywood seems more dependent than ever on fast feeders’ deep pockets.

Though the Federal Trade Commission looked at marketing food to kids and recommended self-regulation, a new, more proactive administration could address the issue anew, said Susan Linn, author of Consuming Kids and associate director of the Media Center of Judge Baker Children’s Center. “We are closer to regulations on junk-food marketing to children than we ever have been,” she said. “We’ve seen that self-regulation doesn’t work, and we have an administration now that believes in government.”

Robert Weissman, managing director of watchdog group Commercial Alert, however, said he thinks movie tie-ins with food companies may be tougher to get a handle on, even though the FTC is keeping an eye on them. Entertainment and food marriages have become “so sophisticated, multileveled, robust and intertwined,” that they’re nearly impossible to regulate, Weissman said. “We’d need new statutory frameworks, a more acute sense of outrage from consumers and/or a cultural shift within the marketing industry on what’s acceptable,” he said.

That could be an uphill battle. As the summer movie season gets under way there are a number of fast-food tie-ins, including:

•Paramount Pictures made a three-in-a-row deal with Burger King for its summer tentpoles Star Trek, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.

•Sony and BK will partner for the book-based Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, a fall release.

•20th Century Fox just inked a five-picture global deal with McDonald’s for family-friendly flicks including A Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, all with movie-centric Happy Meals.

•McDonald’s has a continuing deal to promote DreamWorks Animation flicks like Monsters vs. Aliens.

•Pizza Hut is working with the Warner Bros./Sony action thriller Terminator Salvation, and Papa John’s is linked to X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

But meanwhile in Washington, lawmakers are continuing to look into food and beverage marketing aimed at kids. Sen. Tom Harkin has introduced legislation that would empower the FTC to crack down on such marketing, and the Food and Drug Administration has forced changes in recent cereal ads from General Mills and Kellogg that touted what the agency insisted were misleading nutritional claims.

In the current recession, Hollywood’s major studios, grappling with slowing DVD sales and other market forces, have been trimming their release schedules and nipping their marketing budgets. But it’s not the economy, it’s the need for ubiquity that drives these deals, said Jeffrey Godsick, Fox’s evp marketing.

“We want to hit all the lifestyle points for consumers,” Godsick said. “Partners get us into places that are nonpurchasable (as media buys). McDonald’s has access to tens of millions of people on a daily basis—that helps us penetrate the culture.”

Doing so these days means taking note of public sentiment over the children’s obesity issue. McDonald’s, whose execs declined to comment, has diversified its menu in recent years to include healthier options, Godsick said, making it a good partner for films he called “all audience,” like Night at the Museum.

BK just announced new healthier kids meals—with apple fries, fat free milk, reduced sodium chicken tenders—and a pledge to focus on such offerings in its advertising to kids under 12. The chain plans to keep up a steady pace of entertainment links, regardless of criticism from advocate groups, said Cindy Syracuse, senior director, sponsorships and promotions.

“We pick properties based on their fit for our brand,” Syracuse said. “As a business, it’s very important to stay focused on what consumers want, and they tell us with their pocketbooks what they want and how they want to be entertained.”

Even so, Hollywood and its partners aren’t ignoring the debate.

“There’s more sensitivity about who we’re targeting with what message,” said Devery Holmes, president and CMO of Norm Marshall & Assoc., whose clients include IHOP, which partnered on Fox’s Horton Hears a Who. “Attitudes have changed.”

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