Robert Gibbs, McDonald’s new communications chief, has a full agenda as he prepares to bring some much-needed shine back to the Golden Arches, and now there is one more issue vying for his attention: when the company chooses to run its commercials.
Parents Television Council, which issues advisories on appropriate television programming for children, is stepping up its effort to get McDonald’s to stop running commercials during Fox’s “Family Guy.” The cartoon, which was created by Seth MacFarlane, centers on the fictional Griffin family and airs Sunday nights.
The show carries a TV-14 rating and sometimes includes suggestive dialogue about sexual issues. According to a review by Parents Television Council, McDonald’s commercials often run during episodes that include jokes about sexually violating children.
So the group turned to one of its board members, Gary Lesser, to reach out to the incoming communications chief about McDonald’s decision to advertise during “Family Guy,” which debuted in 1999 and has averaged about 6 million viewers in each of the last two seasons, according to Nielsen. Lesser, a lawyer and Democratic donor from Florida, sent a letter to Gibbs on June 11, just two days after McDonald’s announced his appointment as global chief communications officer.
Industry watchers saw the appointment of Gibbs, former press secretary for President Barack Obama, as recognition inside McDonald’s that it needed to search outside of its ranks of longtime executives to help newly installed CEO Steve Easterbrook turn McDonald’s into what he is calling “a modern, progressive burger company.”
Gibbs and his team must handle issues like McDonald’s prolonged sales slump. Also in the spotlight: everything from McDonald’s relationships with franchisees, restaurant worker wages and the health of its food, along with stepped-up competition from smaller rivals.
“I’ve never seen a company not be able to catch a break more than McDonald’s of late,” said Peter Shankman, a customer service and marketing consultant, alluding to one of the chain’s famous former slogans, “You Deserve a Break Today.” “When a company is down like that, everybody is going to find something to give them (a hard time) about.”
Parents Television Council, a 20-year-old member-supported group, is centering its debate with McDonald’s on choosing to advertise during shows that it finds less than family-friendly, particularly “Family Guy.”
On June 11, Lesser sent a letter to Gibbs congratulating him on his new role and urging McDonald’s to stop running its commercials during “Family Guy.” “How can a company that sells Happy Meals to children use its media dollars to sponsor jokes about sexually assaulting children?” Lesser writes in the letter, which was reviewed by the Chicago Tribune.
Lesser called his letter to Gibbs “an attempt to really start a dialogue we think can be constructive for McDonald’s.” He said he believes Gibbs’ work at the White House may help him “grasp the issues of what type of message” McDonald’s is sending to the country by airing its commercials during certain shows and thinks he is the best executive at the company who could be what he called “an agent of change.”
Shankman, author of books like “Zombie Loyalists: Using Great Service to Create Rabid Fans,” suggested that McDonald’s should keep advertising during shows like “Family Guy.” As he sees it, people watching such programming do not think of the commercials as damaging to the brand. He also said that McDonald’s should instead attack other issues, such as stemming its sales declines.
“There is a huge user base, a younger user base, that watches ‘Family Guy’ and eats McDonald’s,” Shankman said. “If you stop reaching those people you’re cutting off your nose to spite your face.”
Parents Television Council used to include McDonald’s in its list of top advertisers, but it hasn’t been on its best-of list since 2007. In May 2014, Parents Television Council singled McDonald’s out as the top sponsor of sexual content, suggestive dialogue and foul language, based on its research of broadcast television programs.
Gibbs is not the only McDonald’s executive currently targeted by the Parents Television Council. In May, the group began a campaign asking people to send letters to U.S. Chief Marketing Officer Deborah Wahl to show her they are disturbed to see the company’s commercials airing during “Family Guy.”
“Content like that seen on Family Guy does not reflect well on the McDonald’s brand, and continued association with this kind of content will make me think twice about doing business with McDonalds,” the group wrote in a form letter to Wahl available on itswebsite.
Oak Brook-based McDonald’s did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
By Jessica Wohl