Let’s hear it for Ronald McDonald, world famous philanthropist, educator, and company spokesperson. Everybody knows him — but as it turns out, not everybody loves him, and that fact has been causing quite a stir.
A Boston-based group called Corporate Accountability International recently issued a report calling for Ronald McDonald to die. Pointing to the negative health effects of eating McDonald’s food, the group claims that Ronald is “the product of a well-orchestrated and shrewd marketing strategy by America’s king of fast food….to build brand loyalty among children [so] you will have customers for life.” The red-haired clown, the group says, has led “pioneering efforts to market unhealthy food to kids, disguise marketing as charity, and outflank the most well-intentioned parents.”
Corporate Accountability International has a track record that should worry the McDonald’s leadership. In 1997, the group forced the tobacco industry to retire Joe Camel, the former mascot for Camel cigarettes. The group’s website, RetireRonald.org, makes for great reading and poses a convincing argument. When kids see colorful, friendly icons, the group argues, they immediately want the associated products, and those products cause disease. “No one has been better at hooking kids on unhealthy food, spurring an epidemic of diet-related disease [than Ronald],” says the site.
McDonald’s rushed to the defense of its besieged clown, arguing that Ronald is “…a beloved brand ambassador …who helps deliver messages to families on many important subjects such as safety, literacy, and the importance of physical activity and making balanced food choices. That’s what Ronald McDonald is all about, which our customers know and appreciate.”
Many parents do seem to agree. An outpouring of indignation from readers appears on the CNN website. Comments include this one from a reader named Lincoln Brigham: “Attacks on the fast food chains always amuse me. Groups like these can’t even properly identify which foods are the problem. It’s not so much the burgers, the problem is the sodas and milkshakes. A burger is actually a benignly healthy food.” A reader named “Terry” says, “For goodness sakes don’t these morons have anything better to do than to harass a clown? Get a life you people and leave Ronald to his good deeds.” In fact, most of the 497 comments run along these lines, with the added dimension of blaming the parents for not being able to control the diet of their kids.
But outside the CNN website, the sentiment on this issue is as split as sentiment on healthcare reform, it seems, and almost as impassioned. Nearly half (47%) of the parents polled by Corporate Accountability International wanted Ronald McDonald to retire, while the other half voted in favor of him. Those against him recently organized protests outside of McDonald’s locations at 24 sites across the US.
All of this brings up a few significant issues. First, just how unhealthy is the food at McDonald’s, anyway? Is it fair to say that Ronald the clown is pushing products that are as unhealthy for kids as the cigarettes touted by Joe Camel? Does Lincoln Brigham have a point that the burgers themselves actually are benign? Consider that a quarter-pounder with cheese contains 530 calories, 30 grams of fat (including trans fat), and 1310 grams of sodium. Add to that a medium order of fries and you have another 450 calories and 22 more grams of fat, for a grand total of 52 grams of fat and 980 calories, before dessert and without beverage. Plus, consider that McDonald’s purchases its food from sources like the factory farms at Cargill and Tyson’s, uses high-fructose corn syrup, and uses potatoes drenched in pesticides. Put it altogether and it’s extraordinarily unhealthy for an adult. But in a child’s much smaller, more sensitive body, it’s downright deadly.
Certainly, there’s no way to claim the food served under those golden arches is healthy. And in fact, study after study shows that living or working in proximity to McDonald’s or other fast-food restaurants correlates to obesity and higher rates of weight-related health problems. And the problem isn’t just that kids associate Ronald McDonald with happy and delicious meals — it’s also that he may make them crave more of it.
Which brings up the second key issue: does the fact that Ronald McDonald sponsors good causes excuse him from pushing dangerous foods? A closer look at some of those causes reveals a masterful use of double-speak. For instance, the McDonald’s Active Achievers program sponsors educational programs for kids about nutrition and the need to stay active. The related Passport to Play program has been used in 45,000 schools in the US and soon will get delivered to about 11 million kids worldwide. While these programs seem to be virtuous, the fact remains that they bear the McDonald’s trademark and have the effect of building brand loyalty, even though the brand is the antithesis of what the programs represent. What good is learning about exercise and nutrition when what the kid remembers from the lesson is that Ronald McDonald sponsored it, and that he’s friendly and happy and lives in the place that sells burgers, fries, and shakes? Equally dubious are McDonald’s-sponsored academic programs that award kids with coupons for happy meals if they do well in school, or that encourage kids to draw pictures that go on display at the local McDonald’s franchise.
As the Corporate Identity International website says, “You’ve got to give it to the “hamburger-happy” huckster. He’s mastered some clever means of marketing burgers to children and using the adults kids trust most to validate his product…despite its effect on public health.” Even if the campaign to retire Ronald McDonald doesn’t achieve the goal of giving the clown a pink slip, it might put pressure on McDonald’s to start offering healthier alternatives to kids, and that alone would be a major coup. Don’t laugh. Things can change. Really! Since salads were added to the menu to encourage more health-conscious customers, McDonalds has actually become the largest seller of salads in the world!