In the new documentary "Super Size Me," filmmaker Morgan Spurlock eats only McDonald's food for 30 days and documents his rapidly deteriorating health.
The 90-minute movie could cause more people to bring obesity lawsuits against McDonald's Corp., predicts John Banzhaf, a professor at George Washington Law School. A consultant in lawsuits against McDonald's, Banzhaf appears in the documentary and was instrumental in building a case against the tobacco industry.
"What this movie did is show that if you eat there frequently, yes there can be problems," Banzhaf said.
"I would bet a lot of people are working overtime to figure out how to deal with this film," said Larry Kramer, a crisis management expert with Manning Selvage & Lee, who advised Nike boss Phil Knight in 1998 after a documentary showed children making its shoes in Indonesia.
Filmmaker Michael Moore's "The Big One" quickly led to major changes in Nike's operations, including the introduction of a minimum working age of 18 in its Indonesian factories.
Kramer said he likens McDonald's current predicament to a situation he faced in 1993, when he helped burger chain Jack in the Box rebound from a food poisoning outbreak blamed for the deaths of four children.
"We had to provide some perspective on food safety and tell our customers some hard truths," he said. "We told them that most food safety problems actually occurred in the home. I think the challenge that McDonald's faces is to communicate that eating three squares a day at its restaurants is not a healthy pursuit. People have to make smart choices."
In McDonald's case, executives are already in crisis management mode, openly questioning the film's content even though they haven't seen the picture yet.
"Absolutely, I'm a bit carried away," said an irate Ken Barun, Ronald McDonald House Charities president and the man in charge of the company's healthy/active lifestyle initiative.
"The movie is a distortion of reality. I'm sure we'll have more to say after we've seen the film," Barun said.
McDonald's is adamant that the nation's obesity problems are complex and the issues rely heavily on what consumers choose to eat.
"This is really not about McDonald's. It's more about personal responsibility," said Cathy Kapica, McDonald's director of worldwide nutrition who described the film she has yet to see as an exercise in binge eating. "I'm not sure that comes across in the movie."
The company's broader strategy is already clear.
Its executives are stressing personal choice, telling customers to make sensible choices and to limit fatty or sugary foods. McDonald's also is trying to educate consumers about the broader range of offerings it has on its menu. And the company is asking the media to closely examine Spurlock's motives.
"I don't think what we are seeing here has any balance at all," said Barun, who like others at the company has only seen clips and Spurlock interviews.
"We are talking about someone who has obviously gone to excess and exploited a brand that people will relate to in order to make his movie and capitalize on something that is unrealistic. It should be put in the category of the rest of the shock TV that you see. It's a distortion of reality."
Barun's reference to shock TV is a subtle dig at the filmmaker's past. Spurlock was the brains behind a Web-cast and short-lived MTV show in 2000 called "I Bet You Will," which centered on people doing almost anything for money. Often, shows involved bizarre eating stunts.