Italian pizzamakers threaten McDonald’s over ‘attack’

How McDonald's makes its menu
How McDonald's makes its menu

Italian pizzerias are butting heads with McDonald's over a commercial that shows a child spurning a local Neapolitan slice of pizza in favor of a Happy Meal.

The Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (AVPN) or True Neapolitan Pizza Association is threatening to sue the fast food giant, claiming the advertisement is a "dishonorable attack against one of the symbols of the Mediterranean Diet," according to a press statement sent to CNBC.

The McDonald's Italian-language commercial opens with a family of three waiting to order at a pizzeria. As mom and dad hesitate to order, a well-dressed waiter asks the young boy which pizza he'd like.

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Ignoring the menu, the boy exclaims "Happy Meal" prompting a confused look from the waiter. The family is quickly transported to a McDonald's restaurant, as a voiceover closes the commercial, saying, "Your child has no doubts. Happy Meal, still 4 euros."

AVPN has attacked McDonald's not only for "discrediting" the Italian diet, but for suggesting children don't like pizza, promoting unhealthy diets and for targeting advertising at children.

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In the press statement, AVPN said: "Our legal office is considering to use law (sic) in order to stop this dishonourable attack against one of the symbols of the Mediterranean Diet."

The advertisement first appeared on YouTube on February 9, and ran on Italian TV around a month ago. A McDonald's spokesperson told CNBC by email that the campaign came to a close on Sunday, as was previously scheduled.

"It is obvious that the American colossus is trying to discredit its main competitor, but speculating on children's health is just too much," AVPN Vice President Massimo Di Porzio said in the press statement.

The AVPN added that any money gained from a lawsuit with McDonald's would go towards establishing educational nutrition courses.

A spokesperson for McDonald's told CNBC via email that they have not been approached directly by AVPN.

Kantar Retail EMEA's Retail Insights Director Bryan Roberts said it was relatively unusual for McDonald's to attempt to promote burgers over traditional local foods. Instead, the bulk of the fast food chain's marketing in Europe emphasized family dining, speed and locally-sourced ingredients.

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"There could be a very real risk of a backlash here, as the local pizza trade association has come out with all guns blazing and a section of the Italian public seemingly don't need much encouragement in terms of pushing back against McDonald's," he told CNBC via email.

And few competitors of McDonald's dare tread on national food.

"Most other fast food companies focus on their own products rather than directly attempting to compete against incumbent local fare," Roberts said.

"While the ad is clearly tongue-in-cheek and deliberately provocative, I get the sense that McDonald's might live to regret stirring up this particular controversy."