It was a seminal moment. For the first time, breaking all convention, Ronald turned to the TV cameras and addressed himself to his viewers directly. It had never been done before, and it set off a revolution the consequences of which we still struggle to fight. When Ronald Reagan ended his presidential debate with Jimmy Carter in 1979 with “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”, his media savvy changed mass politics forever.
But long before that, another Ronald messed with mass communications no less indelibly, paving the way for today’s politicians and pundits. Appropriately, the first Ronald was a clown. In 1963, sixteen years before Reagan’s fateful piece to camera, Ronald McDonald broke every rule in advertising when he turned to the lens and stunned children by speaking to them directly, saying:
“Here I am kids. Hey, isn’t watching TV fun? Especially when you got delicious McDonald’s hamburgers. I know we’re going to be friends too cause I like to do everything boys and girls like to do. Especially when it comes to eating those delicious McDonald’s hamburgers.”
It’s easy both to wince at how crass this sounds, and to overlook its audacity. With entire TV channels premised on direct marketing to children, it seems impossible that there might have been a time where kids were considered anything other than shorter, louder, more pestering versions of adult consumers. But it wasn’t always thus. It took a canny cabal of admen to tap the pockets of a newly affluent generation of youngsters. They wanted to redefine the frontiers of what advertising in television age could be. And they succeeded.
Today, the McDonald’s corporation boasts that their frontman is more recognizable than Santa Claus. He’s the champion of a $32 billion brand. With a wink and a smile, Ronald has charged into neighbourhoods around and inside schools, targeting children with a range of unhealthy food, plumbing every depth to keep his parent company’s arches golden and bright in the minds of impressionable young eaters.
McDonald’s and other fast food corporations shelter behind the fact that their advertising is ‘free speech,’ as protected by the First Amendment and that, in any case, the corporations clearly declare their commercial intentions. So, for instance, when children go to Ronald.com to play McD-themed games they’ll see in small white letters on a pale background at the top right the words “Hey kids.This is advertising!” This isn’t terribly helpful. Although children may know that something is advertising, they are unlikely to understand what, exactly that means.
Michele Simon, a lawyer and author of Appetite for Profit, tells it straight: “McDonald’s knows that vulnerable children are the perfect advertising audience, since they don’t even know they’re being marketed to.” She suspects that for the group brave enough, and with deep enough pockets, there’s a huge and successful lawsuit to be brought against McDonald’s (and against all advertising against children) for deceptive practices. She’s backed up by the medical profession: the American Academy of Pediatrics says that “advertising directed toward children is inherently deceptive and exploits children under eight years of age.” In other words, the very idea of advertising to children is a fraud. Children are simply unable to generate and entertain rational opinions about goods and services, which cuts away the argument that advertising is just a more entertaining version of truth-telling. When it comes to children, advertising is far closer to brainwashing.
Parents are being hoodwinked too. One of the reasons that kids are permitted by pestered parents to enter a McDonald’s is the possibility that they might choose a healthy meal when they’re there. As Wendi Gosliner, a Researcher at the Center for Weight and Health at UC Berkeley observes, “not one of the 24 Happy Meal combinations offered contains the foods and nutrients children need to meet the Dietary Guidelines. Now, they’re promoting processed fresh apples dipped in caramel sauce and sweetened milk as ‘healthy’ choices. Well, these meals and these choices are hurting our children’s health.”
There’s a bigger picture story here too. Ronald isn’t just a clown. He’s not just a pioneer in the marketing of food to children: he’s also an architect. Without him, the food system we have today would look very different. Here and around the world, the way food is grown, subsidized, processed and eaten has been fashioned by the needs of the McDonald’s corporation.
More sales for the clown mean bigger returns for Cargill and Tyson’s factory farms, Archer Daniels Midland’s high fructose corn syrup processing plants, and Monsanto’s pesticide production facilities. And it’s our tax dollars that go into everything from the cheap commodities that they depend on, to the small business loans and tax credits that allow fast food franchises to breed in and around our schools. For these subsidies, and for the lax regulations around health and advertising to children, the fast food industry has spent millions in lobbying fees, and aggressively courted political favour. Ronald McDonald may have a big smile, but his shoes are steel-tipped.
Ultimately, McDonald’s cheap food is cheat food. Ronald is more of a Hamburgler, dipping into our pockets with our children’s fingers, and leaving us with bills for long afterward. We pay for it all in the end. The cost of diabetes in the US alone is $700 for every man, woman and child. For people of colour, diet related disease is incredibly important – one in two children of colour born in 2000 will develop diabetes.
There are alternatives, of course. The sustainable agriculture that thrives in farmers markets and cooperatives don’t get the billions in subsidies that industrial agriculture does. Yet from the moment they are exposed to TV, our children are subject to the manipulations of Ronald and his friends. Corporations spend $17 billion a year turning children into consumers. Globally, for every dollar spent promoting food that’s good for you, $500 is spent promoting junk. For a parent wanting their kids to eat well, those are tough odds. Especially for those parents on restricted income.
Times are changing, though. Despite the millions that McDonald’s spends in advertising, and despite most people having a favourable impression of Ronald as a consequence, a new survey shows that most parents who have kids under 18 want Ronald to go. The Corporate Accountability International, an organisation which I advise, has released a terrific report entitled Clowning with Kid’s Health: The Case for Ronald McDonald’s Retirement, in which the survey data on Ronald is presented, and some tight legal and epidemiological arguments against him are made.
This isn’t some curmudgeonly attack on fun. For those who want to watch clowns, there’ll always be circuses and cable news. And it’s certainly the case that there are bigger questions here. Why is it that junk food is cheaper than healthy food? Why is there persistent poverty driving people into the arms of the junk food industry. Why isn’t there real choice in the US diet?
But as a matter of public health, as a way to give parents the chance to get their children eating well, as a way of making it possible to have fun with food without spending scarce cash on unhealthy food, the clown’s gotta go.
There is a precedent: Joe Camel, once more widely recognized than Mickey Mouse, is now a symbol of shame for the cigarette industry. Sure, cigarettes are themselves bad, but worse was the conscious attempt by the industry behind them to hook kids on a lifetime of ill health. We’re at a similar moment in the transformation of our food system. There’s lots to do to transform how we eat, but along the way we all need to recognize that parents need the space to be able to feed their kids well, to give the next generation the freedom to choose to eat healthily, and to build a more sustainable food system. As part of that, and I’m talking to you here, it’s time to Retire Ronald.