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Brands aim to boost images by promoting physical activity

With some pointing fingers at the restaurant industry as a contributor to the rise in the nation’s obesity rates, operators have responded not only with more healthful menu offerings, but also by promoting exercise.

In the recent past, many companies have established corporate policies or launched marketing campaigns that incorporate the promotion of physical activity as part of a healthy lifestyle.

Operators say efforts to educate consumers about the more healthful offerings on their menus should go hand-in-hand with the promotion of exercise. Critics, however, say such programs are empty attempts to present a good-for-you image to consumers at a time when bad-for-you menu choices are in the spotlight.

McDonald’s, which has come under activist fire repeatedly for its offerings, has written into its global-marketing guidelines the promotion of physical activity. The chain uses its licensed characters and Olympic athletes to promote exercise in advertising.

When the movie “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” was released in 2008, the chain launched a “One Minute to Move It” campaign, featuring the animal characters and Olympic gold medalist Shawn Johnson.

McDonald’s has sponsored the Olympic Games since 1976 and has served as the official restaurant of the games for the past eight events.

Domino’s Pizza officials said this year they have a verbal agreement to support the “Fuel Up to Play 60” program, an in-school initiative founded by the National Dairy Council and the National Football League to encourage students to eat better and be active for at least 60 minutes each day.

The Tropical Smoothie chain earlier this year offered consumers a chance to win a copy of the “EA Sports Active” interactive-fitness video game for the Nintendo Wii system.

And, as part of its “Keeping It Balanced” effort, Yum! Brands Inc. last year offered consumers a free, one-month trial membership to an online personal fitness-training program. The company also partnered with University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino, who did public-service announcements promoting physical activity.

Professional basketball players Derrick Rose and Brandon Jennings promoted active lifestyles in Taco Bell’s “Driving Better Choices” campaign earlier this year.

Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, public health and sociology at New York University, said it’s not surprising that restaurant companies that sell “foods that should go in the eat-once-in-a-while category” are promoting exercise.

“Since obesity is the result of too many calories in and too few out, why not focus on the ‘out’ side of the equation?” she said. “Eating less is bad for business. Never mind that it’s almost impossible for most people to lose weight unless they eat less.… So promoting activity deflects the attention from the food and gets you points with the media and regulators.”

Jeff Cronin, director of communications for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a health advocacy group in Washington, D.C., said such marketing efforts might do more harm than good.

“It’s really bad to send the message that athletics and junk food are related,” he said. “What we’d really like to see less of is the number of athletes who take junk-food endorsements. What a bad message for children, in particular, that the more sodas you drink or burgers you eat can help you become an Olympic athlete.”—[email protected]

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