Should Ronald McDonald Retire?

(image: Scott Olson/Getty Images, via NPR)

Consumer advocacy group Corporate Accountability International is calling on McDonald’s to retire Ronald McDonald. In an open letter to McDonald’s CEO Jim Skinner, the non-profit states:

As health professionals engaged directly in the largest preventable health crisis facing this country, we ask that you stop marketing junk food to children.

The rise of health conditions like diabetes and heart disease mirrors the growth of your business – growth driven in large part by children’s marketing. Although the American Academy of Pediatrics deems such marketing “inherently deceptive to children under 8,” you continue to use it as a vehicle to grow your enterprise.

As one marketing expert puts it, “Ronald captures kids’ attention better than anyone else can.” You use Ronald McDonald and other promotions to appeal to kids in environments that informed parents and health professionals can’t constantly monitor – from schools to libraries to the internet. Today, your icon is as recognized as Santa Claus, and the McDonald’s model of marketing is used by a range of abusive industries. read more…

What you need to know:

RM (Ronald McDonald) was absent from commercials and ads for a few years. But then last month, his royal clown-ness was reinstated by the fast food empire. While McDonald’s is certainly not the only reason for childhood obesity, as the market leader it should serve as a positive role model for the industry, instead of blaming everybody else.

Targeting impressionable kids with Happy Meals and clowns is a below the belt strategy that pits parents against their kids. That’s what many companies have been doing for decades, despite industry formulated “guidelines” as to what’s permissable and what’s not.

There will be readers that comment  “parents need to put a firm foot down and say NO to their kids.” It’s easier said than done for most families. Your kids don’t live in a vacuum. They are influenced by many external forces such as friends, relatives, internet, school, tv, etc…

Reducing the pressure from these external forces can make our lives as parents easier. But don’t count on that happening any time soon.

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  • Sketch

    “it should serve as a positive role model for the industry, instead of blaming everybody else.”

    You mean like Fooducate blaming the EVIL companies for the individual for making their own choices? People should be strong-minded enough to be able to decide if a clown should influence how they eat. People should take responsibility for their own decisions. Why do you people INSIST on a nanny state?

    • Anonymous

      I work in the “evil” processed food industry as a food scientist. I’ve worked in this industry for the last 25 years.  There’s no hidden agenda to kill you.  I’ve helped make “healthy” food, I’ve helped make “unhealthy” food.  

      Given the choice, people choose sweet, salty, and fatty foods over and over and over again. 

      Example:  Our workplace is quite rare in that they provide a bunch of free food for employees every day.  While we were under construction, we had doughnuts provided every day.  There were also platters of fresh fruit, various cereals, bagles, bread, milk (skim and 2%), juice, coffee, and other stuff.  All free.  No limit on what you can take.  Just sitting there for breakfast, any time you want.

      The doughnuts disappeared every single day.

      The fruit sat and sat and sat.

      To be perfectly blunt, people make poor choices on a regular basis.  There’s no argument about the lack of availability of ”good” food.  There’s no price consideration at all.  There’s no issue with time or preparation, or skill (we have a cook on staff), or any of that.  This comes down to 100% choice. 

      Here’s free food.  Someone else will make it for you if there’s preparation involved.  You can make “good” choices, or you can make “bad” choices.  The majority of the people made “bad” choices.  It was interesting to observe.

      What irks me is that there is a growing contingent of people out there who are interested in removing all the “bad” choices from the marketplace.  These are the voices that say there should be no doughnuts, no HFCS, no hamburgers, no french fries.  They should be mandated out of existence or they should be taxed so heavily that people will avoid them because of the cost.

      Nanny state indeed.   

      • Toyotagirl63

        Freedom of choice…I live in USA not China…My food intake is none of yours or anybody elses business…I mean this NONE…I happen to eat mostly seafood and chicken but when I want a Mig mac that is my business…I happen to drink coffee and soda, does that mek me a bad person…No I would not drink water, I don’t like it…Here’s an idea..I am a Christian maybe all non Christians should have to go to church once a month by law…How would liberals like that one?  

        • Gerome

          Dear Toyotagirl,

          Please learn to read. Oh, and consider that you, and your freedom, and your tax dollars are helping to lower the cost of certain foods. I neither care what you eat, nor want regulation on Ronald.

    • Toyotagirl63

        You are dead on right…Next Mickey Mouse will have to go because he’s making too much money…He’s an evil empire…OMG stop the insanity now!!! 

  • Anonymous

    Parents need to do their job as parents and keep fast food as an occasional treat rather than a mainstay of their child’s diet. When they do allow their child to have fast food, they’re the ones decide whether their child gets fries and soda or fruit and milk. If they can’t say no to their kid, that problem rests squarely on their own shoulders. It isn’t the job of a restaurant, grocery store, or food manufacturer to make their products undesirable or to market them in such a way as to be of little or no interest to consumers.

    • Ellizabeth

      Lorie, I totally agree with you.

    • Melhaickel

      I totally agree with everyone here. I don’t remember my parents ever having an issue with telling me I could not do or have something. As a child I did what I was told and I turned out just fine, actually better than some of my friends whose parents thought they needed to be “friends” with their kids. Grow a backbone and learn to say no. You chose to be a parent, then be one. Your kids are going to hear a lot of “nos” in their lives so they better understand its meaning.

  • Februarystars

    Parents, for the most part, aren’t the greatest role models when it comes to food choices. The majority of parents I know who complain that their kids won’t eat vegetables, are hooked on soda, beg for fast food, are always snacking on chips or candy…well, how did they get that way? (I’m talking about elementary school age kids like my own.) Who introduced them to this? Look in the mirror.  These are the adults who also don’t eat vegetables (unless they’re drowned in melted velveeta… or do fried zucchini sticks dipped in ranch dressing count as a veg?) , guzzle diet Coke all day because it has no calories, are “too busy” to shop, cook or think about food so they hit the drive thru or reach for the phone for dinner several nights a week and who zone out watching the Biggest Loser or some other crap in the evenings with a bag of something salty and crunchy on their laps. Then they lament their kids’ lack of activity and food choices.

  • Foodie, Formerly Fat

    I respect CAI’s position that marketing directly to children is an enormous problem and there are many places and people who do not do appropriate filtering of information that reaches kids. Studies show that children who are exposed to marketing of any kind, not just food, are fatter in the long run than those who aren’t.

    That said, banning the character isn’t really the way to go about it. This is like cutting off your hand because you touched poison ivy.

    My kids do not watch any television that has commercials in it. We do not subscribe to magazines that carry advertizing towards children. My kids get home cooked meals every night of the week and have been to fast food restaurants on average of once or twice a year and that’s only on long car trips. They know Ronald as the character associated with the fundraising drive they do at school each year for The Ronald McDonald house. You know, the one that provides housing to children and families when children are undergoing serious long-term medical treatments, like cancer.

    Yes marketing junk food to kids is wrong, but let’s also have a little bit of personal accountability and instead of putting time, energy, and resources into eliminating a cartoon let’s put it into educating people on nutrition, how to cook easily and inexpensively at home, and then watch as they make better choices all on their own.

    Perhaps it’s my personal bias, but this site seems to spend a lot of time telling people what not to eat instead of showing them not only what TO eat, but how to make it. Being told not to buy junk food is of little help to someone who doesn’t know how to do anything else. Cooking is a lost art that needs to be taught. Direct people to places where they can learn HOW to eat better instead of just telling them what not to do.

    • Fooducate

      “but this site seems to spend a lot of time telling people what not to
      eat instead of showing them not only what TO eat, but how to make it”.
      Got a recipe you’d like to share with us? We’d love for you to guest post…

    • Sara

       I understand your point about trying to find out what to eat, but I come to Fooducate to find out about processed food and what’s in it that I might not otherwise know.  I think the website started out with that purpose and I believe it’s doing a good job.  I go to other websites when I’m looking for a good recipe or meal idea.

    • Susan Cactuswren

      FFF, I’m pleased for you that you have time to oversee every moment of your children’s television watching.  I’m pleased as well that you have time, and income, and facilities to prepare home-cooked meals “every night of the week”.  Perhaps you’d care to offer some of your wisdom to people who do not share your good fortune in these things?  To, for instance, single parents working two jobs?  Parents who live in “food deserts” where there’s no supermarket for miles, only convenience markets and liquor stores? 

  • June Sanderson Saxton

    I agree that Fast Food Companies should not target children in their advertising. Ronald McDonald need not be present in McDonald’s commercials. He is not the problem, the meals are! I feel that Happy Meals should be only an occasional treat and the toys should be removed. Parents need to be responsible for their children’s food choices and not cave to pressure. Ronald McDonald is an American Icon and Ronald McDonald houses do a lot of good for families of children with cancer.

    • Fooducate

      While the Ronald McDonald House does a lot of great work, a lot less kids would get sick and fat if McDonald’s wasn’t the fast food corp that it was. Overall the damage this company does to America’s health is hundredfold greater than the good it does with it’s charity activities.

      • June Sanderson Saxton

         Why just target McDonald’s? Most of the other fast food companies have symbols like Ronald McDonald. My husband had a good idea.  He said, “Why not make Ronald McDonald a spokesperson for healthy eating?”

  • Sara

    My kids don’t live in a vacuum and I have no problem at all telling them, “No.”

    McDonald’s, for us, is “traveling” food.  We go there when we’re driving long distances on vacation.  So it’s a treat to our kids.  We order Happy Meals and are happy to get the toy (something to keep the kids entertained during the trip), but we order milk and apple dippers (no dipping sauce) for our kids.  In fact, whenever we see McDonald’s our son says that he loves McDonald’s – “because they have apple dippers!”  On trips, we’ll even sometimes go to McDonald’s for just the apple dippers and we buy the happy meal toy as an extra charge!

    One funny – maybe ironic – part about all this is that even though we go to McDonald’s occasionally and our kids watch kids’ TV which is inundated with commercials, someone once referred to Ronald McDonald when talking to our kids and they had absolutely no idea who he was.  (I sort of felt sorry for them, to tell you the truth – it was sort of like we had kept this funny clown a secret from them.)

    I gotta say, I really don’t have a huge problem with McDonald’s – it serves our family well – but I do have a problem with everyone in the US trying to blame other people/institutions/companies for their own problems.

    • Fooducate

      Do you have a problem paying higher taxes and medical insurance to cover $150,000,000,000 a year for food related disease while McD’s is laughing all the way to the bank?

  • Mbsmith

     This is a parenting problem, not a corporate issue. Since my kids were young, we’ve told them that Ronald McDonald is a bad, evil clown who feeds bad food to kids to make them fat and sick. That did the trick…

    • Fooducate

      What will happen when they are 10 or 15 or 18 years old and realize you slightly exaggerated? Aren’t you afraid of a teenage rebellion?

  • Gerome

    I generally agree with posters who say that parents need to exercise responsibility. And if that were the only factor, then I’d agree and say we should leave Ronald alone. But that’s not the case here.

    Your friendly federal government has subsidised corn. So, feed for the cow (for beef and dairy), sweetener in the Coke and ketchup all are less expensive to produce. Consumer research shows that food decisions are made based on taste, convenience and price. The subsidy is making the cost of saying “yes” to McDonald’s easier for mom and dad. Ronald helps to seal the deal for a portion of those parents.

    I wish it would be easy to remove these price supports that contribute to a glut of inexpensive unhealthy foods, but there’s darned little chance of that happening. As a distant second prize, I’m happy to support physican and individuals who cast shame on McDonalds for selling directly to the children.

    I’d note too that this article is not about parents abdicating responsibility. Read the whole statement that is linked from the article. It is also not a call for legislation to restrict Ronald’s First Amendment rights. It’s a request for corporate responsibility.

  • LDS

    I lived in a vacuum. My parents said no and didn’t care what my friends, other family and the media said. I am eternally grateful to them being able to “just say no.” I am not addicted to fast food and have escaped a lot of the problems facing those who are addicted to it. I’m glad I can pass up a fast food joint and come home and cook for myself. It not only saves money but saves my health as well. 

  • Anonymous

    So McDonald’s argument that obesity rates have risen in parallel to an increasingly sedentary lifestyle (true and true) is blaming everyone else? “Blaming everyone else” seems to be the problem here; parents projecting their own inability to control/maintain their children’s diets onto a corporation that feeds people cheap.

    I have no sympathy for impotent parents, or support for consumer groups who protect consumers from everyone but themselves.

  • gorgepeterson

    It is good to marketing against the junk food. Health wise junk food is not so good. Its increase your fat level of the body. Such as diabetes and heart disease in the mirror of health problems that increase the growth of your business.