Down on the Clown

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 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.

20 Replies to “Down on the Clown”

  1. The documentary “Supersize Me”, which my daughter saw first when about 11, killed McDonald’s for her… Great flick.

  2. I have to admit that the very sight of a McDonald’s depresses me. Their whole product line is derived from abysmal cruelty to animals, which the masses of McDonald’s patrons shamefully ignore as they delight in their Big Macs and Quarter Pounders. Here in my workplace food court, the biggest lineup is always at McDonald’s, and always it’s because of the price. They practically give their food away. Oh sorry, I called it food. People are still so unaware of the evils of McDonalds; regardless of films like Supersize Me. So it’s going to be a McWorld until we all grow up and face the facts about what we eat, where it comes from, and the ultimate price paid by taxpayers, animals, and the environment.

  3. We’ve recently been experimenting with knock-off recipes for McDonald’s products, which we then tweak further to be actually healthy. We now can make big macs at home which taste just as good as the “real” ones, satisfying those guilty-pleasure cravings, without sacrificing nutrition and health.

    So our 2 all-beef patties are from local grass-fed organic cows, the special sauce is homemade (no MSG either), lettuce is fresh from the garden (at least in season), cheese is real cheddar and raw milk cheddar when I’ve got it, pickles are home-canned from local cukes, onions are fresh, and when I get the chance, even the buns are homemade.

    Served with homemade french fries from local potatoes and organic ketchup, it’s a real treat, and keeps the kids from begging to go out. My 11yo even said mine taste BETTER.

  4. I’m getting tired of blaming Ronald McDonald, the creepy Burger King and the world in general for kid’s bad health and eating habits. Ronald et al. isn’t grabbing kids off of the streets and shoving burgers down their throats. Where is personal and parent responsibility in all this? Sure kids will whine and cry for unhealthy food but it’s up to their PARENTS TO DECIDE FOR THEM. If the parents cave in to their child’s demands for special food and lack of vegetables (which can be relentless I admit) it’s still up to the PARENT to decide what the kid does or does not eat. Not a fast food icon.

  5. @Gia: Of course parents and families bear responsibility for what children eat, but we also need to consider why children whine and cry for things like McDonald’s, and this is where the need to focus on advertising comes in. There is no ‘natural’ link between kids’ taste buds and french fries or bits of fried chicken, but there is certainly a manufactured link between kids being entertained by clowns and cartoons, and being wooed by the promise of toys and games with dinner. That manufactured link comes from advertising, and the imperative for corporations to sell product for profit. Responsibility is actually quite a complex beast!

  6. A child’s brain develops in such a way that it is particularly susceptible to the environment and its messages in the first few years without any ability to discriminate. A child’s predominant brain activity in the first two years of life is delta which is the lowest EEG frequency range. Between 2 and 6 years of age the child’s brain activity moves more into theta where imagination and the real world intermingle. A conscious awareness develops after 6 years of age and by 12 children are generally operating from alpha EEG frequencies – focused attention. Delta and theta are the brain states which are accessed during the hypnotised state and young children under 6 use only these brain frequencies. It should be criminal to market to a hypnotised audience – which is precisely what is happening to our under 6’s. Thank you Raj for your posting.

  7. “Down on the Clown” is excellent, Raj and hits the McDonald’s nail squarely on the head. Everyone needs to think better about how to eat better. I personally am a longtime vegan. I am starting an organic farm in North Carolina.
    If people get wind of organic, healthful foods and taste great recipes using these, they’ll wean off of fast foods. Actually I plan a fast food healthful vegan lunch business and know we can share delicious meals which will offer some of the normal fast foods.
    Congratulations on yet another great article which resounds what nutritionists, the Cancer Society, Heart Association and all forward doctors say- to eat more whole grains, vegetables , fruits, nuts and seeds. Going organic helps the environment and our health as well.
    Thanks again for calling a spade a spade so very well. McDonald’s could go vegan and organic and do a real service. We need an organic farmer in the public eye influencing all ages, not a clown who clowns around with our healthstyles.

  8. @Johnny Gregory I’ve enjoyed reading your posts here on the site very much. I am interested to hear you are starting an organic farm. I want to buy some land soon and begin an organic garden for my family and I. Could you please direct me to some good links for info about this? Have you heard of Permaculture? Thanks and all the best!

  9. All your fine posts inspired me and out jumped a bard.

    Old McDonald had a farm,
    and several factories.

    For Golden Arches to supply
    sugar diabetes for free.

    With a kill kill here
    and a crunch grind there
    and a pesticide sandwich

    Old McDonald had a farm,
    Robotic Ronald too.

    Two of our little suberban communities are starting a mutual organic garden on a piece of land donated by the two communities. It lies right between the two communities and allows easy access for all the local folks. Cathy Rose, the young mayor of my little community, spent an hour in my cottage telling me of her vision to have a community garden. Awareness is now increasing exponentially all over!

    It is the decline of stupidity and the rise of the Green Thumb–in spite of all outward appearances.

    When all is said and done,
    every human being on planet earth
    wants exactly the same thing…
    just to love and be loved in return…
    to creatively work with their own two hands
    …and offer undying hope to their children.


  10. Eddie (who is 3) and I sat in the food court outside the supermarket the other day, eating our nori rolls. Eddie has never eaten Macdonalds but he looked around carefully, noting that EVERY SINGLE OTHER CHILD was eating chips (fries) from colourful boxes, and asked, “Mum, why don’t I have any chips?”
    We had just picked up the few things we still buy from the supermarket and I had tried to pay at the confectionery-free register. Of course, that one was closed, though the registers with the sugar-hits prominently displayed were all open…
    I am Eddie’s mother, teacher and protector. Why do I have to work so hard to defend him from pathological corporations who care nothing for his wellbeing or mine? Shouldn’t governments be supporting me, rather than these profit-takers?

  11. Just in case anyone was wondering… The vast majority of cheap hamburger meat sold in America contains a filler which is made of a dog-food grade beef injected with ammonia.

    This filler is present in every single fast-food burger in the country. And in most supermarket ground beef. And in nearly every school lunch burger.

    The corporation responsible for bringing us this delectable fare is called Beef Products Inc.

  12. Raj and others might be interested in Douglas Coupland’s hilarious (but thought-provoking) book JPod. Ronald figures in the narrative a couple of times, and comes to a well-deserved nasty end!

  13. How dare you all who think that you know what is best for the world.
    Why don’t you all crawl back to where ever you crawled out of.
    Whatever happened to your mantra from the 60’s “LIVE AND LET LIVE”?

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