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No Fast-Food Ad Stampede Following Mad Cow Scare

Has the "mad cow" scare that hit the Northwest three weeks ago caused fast-food eateries to alter their ad schedules? Not so far, it appears, but the meat scare is prompting public-advocacy groups to consider new TV campaigns to address the issue.

Fast-food chains aren't pulling ads (or adding more spots, either), although the companies stress that they are monitoring events closely and plans could change depending on developments. Collectively, those companies spend a lot of dough on TV advertising—on the order of $2.6 billion, according to Nielsen Monitor Plus.

Meanwhile, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the animal-rights group, was strongly considering TV ads to complement its new print and online campaign with a gun-toting chicken and the tag-line "If the Beef Doesn't Kill You, I Might. It's Mad To Eat Any Meat!" PETA's Bruce Friedrich said the group was currently meeting with consultants to determine whether its message could be effectively told in 30- or 60-second spots.

PETA's basic message is that eating meat fosters animal cruelty and puts people at risk to food-borne diseases. The group also charges that the Department of Agriculture isn't doing enough to enforce beef-industry regulations.

A group on the opposite end of the spectrum, the Center for Consumer Freedom, also weighed in on the mad cow issue, calling groups like PETA "scaremongers." For now, a new CCF ad campaign is limited to print and online, according to spokesman Mike Bruita. Asked about a possible TV campaign, he said, "We've talked about it and haven't ruled it out."

Last year, the group aired a national cable-TV campaign addressing what it said were the excesses of some lawyers in bringing lawsuits on behalf of obese clients against certain food-products companies.

Last week, most of the fast-food giants contacted by BROADCASTING & CABLE said their marketing strategies for TV remain unchanged, with spending and advertising continuing as planned before the mad cow announcement in December. Burger King, though, confirmed that it altered one new TV ad for its Whopper burger after the mad cow story broke. Inserted in the new ad was a reference to the fact that the company also offers a chicken Whopper.

At McDonald's, said a company spokeswoman, it's "business as usual. Our TV spending and campaigns continue as planned." A Wendy's spokesman had a similar comment. Both indicated that there are no plans to alter their current TV campaigns to address the mad cow issue.

And why should they? Sales for both companies haven't fallen off, the spokespeople said.

In the fall, McDonald's kicked off a big campaign with the tagline "I'm Lovin' It," featuring pop star Justin Timberlake. The campaign will continue as planned, with numerous new spots introduced through the coming year. As part of that campaign, McDonald's launched an all-white-meat Chicken McNugget, which will continue to be advertised but with no more or less weight than previously planned, the company said.

It was on Dec. 23 that the Department of Agriculture confirmed that one cow was found in the State of Washington with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease.

Of course, that one cow triggered memories across the U.S. of the cow carcasses piled as high as houses in the UK a few years back when mad cow disease claimed 200,000 head of cattle and dozens of human lives as well.

But efforts to calm the public, or incite it, have largely avoided paid TV advertising. "Based on the response by consumers so far, we feel that [a TV campaign] would be counterproductive," said Mark Thomas, vice president, global marketing, National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "We're not looking to stir the pot if there's no reason to."

According to Thomas, surveys commissioned by the association after the news broke indicated that consumers were widely aware of the infected cow had no plans to cut back on eating beef.

A check with several broadcast networks and local stations, including several in Seattle, not far from where the mad cow infection was discovered, found that, so far, it's business as usual for spending and campaigns by McDonald's, Burger King and other fast-food chains. "We've seen no impact at all," said Jim Brown, community relations director at KOMO-TV Seattle, the ABC affiliate in the market, echoing comments from other stations contacted.