Fast-food nation expands its menu of promos

A correction was made to this article on April 18.

EVERY YEAR, fast-food outlets buy tens of millions of pounds of chicken parts from the nation’s industrial farms, slather them in batter and cook them in vats of scalding oil.

So it came as a big surprise when Burger King and DreamWorks a few years ago reached a deal to cross-promote “Chicken Run,” a claymation comedy modeled after “Stalag 17,” in which a henhouse full of cute and eccentric chickens attempt to flee the coop before being turned into chicken nuggets.

The “Chicken Run” tie-in, just one of many strange twists in the long and sometimes vexed relationship between Hollywood and the fast-food industry, sprang to mind last week when McDonald’s revealed plans to mount a major PR offensive against Fox Searchlight’s fictionalization of the Eric Schlosser book “Fast Food Nation.”

For years, studios have relied on McDonald’s, BK and the other fast-food chains to hype their slates through happy meals, flights of TV ads and in-store promotions such as the recent “King Kong-size” Triple Whopper with cheese and large banana shake (2,100 calories, in case you’re keeping track).

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The fast-food promotional landscape is likely to grow more competitive now that McDonald’s has ended its exclusive 10-year licensing deal with Disney. The corporate behemoth that Ray Croc built, now in the throes of a marketing onslaught for “Cars” and “The Wild,” will soon pour its formidable marketing energies into “Shrek 3.” DreamWorks will even develop original animation for McDonald’s commercials.

BUT THE MARKETING MIX at the fast-food chains is shifting away from TV spots, which have long been the sweet spot for film campaigns. McDonald’s spent about $1.4 billion on national advertising in 2004, but only $204 million of that was on network TV — a 20% drop from the previous year.

Fast-food ads are rapidly migrating to the Internet, mobile phones and other alternative outlets, a trend that stems in part from the success of Burger King’s Subservient Chicken Web site, created a few years ago by the burger chain’s agency, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, to promote a new chicken sandwich. The site showed a man in a chicken suit who responded to the user’s commands. You could make him laugh, cry or even smoke a cigarette. The ad was viewed 475 million times in 17 months.

CP + G has since come up with a whole grab bag of bizarre marketing ideas for Burger King, including a TV spot in which people say “Big Bucking Chicken” again and again, and another one in which a man with an oversize plastic Burger King head does a pole dance in a strip club.

Subversive ads like these might help cement the fast-food chain’s edgy reputation among teenagers. But they don’t really lend themselves to film campaigns. (What’s next, a Wendy’s campaign using the severed finger motif from “Saw 2”?)

HOLLYWOOD PROMOTIONAL deals benefit fast-food chains in sometimes intangible ways. They drive sales of course. But they also help burnish the industry’s image at a time when purveyors of burgers and fries are suffering a super-sized identity crises.

Now that two-thirds of American adults are officially overweight, fast-food chains are desperate to create the illusion that they’re healthy places to eat. Hence licensing deals such as the McKids video series distributed by Warner Bros., a line of “action-oriented” DVDs promoting soccer, skateboarding and other sports.

Fast-food outlets are constantly on the hunt for celebrity endorsements from the likes of Justin Timberlake, who composed the “I’m Lovin’ It” jingle for McDonald’s, and Paris Hilton, who appeared in a bikini and stiletto heels slathering soap bubbles on a Bentley in a Carl’s Jr. TV spot.

McDonald’s executives attending the recent Night Before party at the Beverly Hills Hotel received talking points on how best to insert the McGriddle sandwich into conversation, should they find themselves chatting with George Clooney. Everyone who attended the party received $50 in McDonald’s gift certificates.

Such corporate outreach has its limits. The Carl’s Jr. ads were recently skewered in a musicvideo by the singer Pink. Pink also recently published the following screed against KFC on PETA’s Web site: “PETA is simply asking KFC to modernize its methods and stop boiling birds alive in the defeathering tank and stop pumping them so full of growth drugs that they cripple under their own weight.”

Here’s a suggestion for the producers of “Fast Food Nation”: put Pink on the soundtrack.

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