Time to Retire Ronald McDonald?

Marketing is about selling things. Other things being equal, the more you sell, the more effective your marketing has been. Can marketing ever be too effective? Yes, when it’s done it’s done expertly and aimed at kids. Marketing to kids in an ethical way is tricky. It’s hard to imagine saying flat-out that companies should never market to kids. Lots of kids have at least some buying power (transferred to them by adults) and many kids have influence on family expenditures. And it’s not like kids have absolutely no ability to filter information and make good decisions. The fact that they’re kids doesn’t mean they’re stupid. But still, most people agree that if you’re going to market to kids, you’ve got to pull your punches a bit.

On that note, see this story, from The Age: It’s time to go, Ronald

A coalition of health professionals, parents and corporate accountability advocates is calling for Ronald McDonald to retire as a spokesman for the world’s largest restaurant chain, saying he has too much influence on kids.

Corporate Accountability International, which has waged campaigns against bottled water companies and tobacco companies in the US, said it plans to present the results of a survey on Wednesday showing that most Americans agree….

So, is is it OK to use a clown to market what is generally pretty unhealthy food to kids? Kids do love clowns: they’re happy, friendly, welcoming, accepting. Now, it’s worth noting that cigarette maker R. J. Reynolds retired its own kid-friendly marketing device, Joe Camel, nearly 13 years ago, in the face of criticism that using a cartoon character to sell a deadly product was, well, a bit over the top. Hmm, see the parallel? Now, McDonalds isn’t R. J. Reynolds. However unhealthy most of McDonalds’ food is, it’s still not cigarettes. But, as food choices go, eating at McDonalds is pretty bad. At least it’s bad as a habit. Sane, sensible adults can exercise restraint, and do their best not to let it become a habit. And maybe that’s fine: eating at McD’s once in a while isn’t going to hurt you. But kids don’t necessarily have the same capacity (or responsibility) for restraint. And for junk food, as for cigarettes, it’s pretty reasonable to think that they core marketing strategy is to get ’em while they’re young.

I recently argued in another venue that it can be hard for companies to show restraint. Aiming to sell “a little less” to kids or to market to them “a little less aggressively” is probably a hard promise to keep. But McDonalds has a chance to take a concrete, discrete step here, one that doesn’t involve any mushy grey zones. All they have to do is cut a mascot that’s clearly aimed at promoting their mostly-unhealthy product to kids. Yes, Ronald, it really is time to go.

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Here are a few related blog entries:

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HT to Andrew Potter.

24 comments so far

  1. Lisa @ Corporate Babysitter on

    I have not problem saying flat-out that companies should never market to kids. No problem whatsoever.

  2. Randallito on

    Great post! McDonald’s has used Ronald to cleverly market to kids and bypass parents to get kids hooked on a fast food diet.

    With the epidemic of preventable diet-related disease it is time McDonald’s to take some responsibility for their marketing and retire Ronald.

  3. Anonymous on

    You’re right. Adults can and should make informed decisions about their food. But maybe that’s precisely whey McDonald’s is using a clown of all things to appeal to those without the same capacity to reason…namely, children!

    McDonald’s is creepy…and should retire their clown!

  4. Joel on

    A friend of mine said she didn’t like the idea of axing Ronald, not at all. After a little prying I found her opinion was based on the idea that it is the consumer’s responsibility to make good choices with unhealthy products. If a child can’t be trusted to make these choices, then it is the responsibility of the parent to teach and protect their child. If we expect businesses to be responsible with their marketing strategies, then we face an ethical grey area when being ethical and being profitable involve pursuing two very different strategies. If we count on the government to regulate advertising to protect us, then we are relying on the government to make good choices in order to protect our children–something not everyone would be comfortable with. Therefore, she argues, it is not the government’s responsibility to axe Ronald, nor Mcdonald’s responsibility. The consumer alone is responsible for ensuring that potentially dangerous marketing to children is ineffective.

    While I agree with most of the above points, I think the government should–if anyone is to take action–be the one to step in. To me, this kind of marketing is similar to ‘greenwashing’. If the company were to flat out lie about the nutrition of their food, I think their would be a strong case that the government step in and correct the problem. Marketing to children is an example of a lesser case. While not flat out lying, McDonald’s is implying that their food is appropriate for kids. In truth, many would claim it’s not even appropriate for adults. Therefore, if the government were to step in, it wouldn’t be some sort of case of paternalism. Instead it would be a case of misinformation in advertising–breaking the rules.

  5. Elizabeth on

    Really interesting post!

    I think the parallel to Joe Camel gets even stronger when you consider how many people die every year from diet-related disease. I’ve heard it may even surpass tobacco as the leading preventable cause of death in the coming years.

    I really admire efforts to hold large corporations accountable for the damage they do to people and the environment. Imagine how much better off our food system would be without fast food companies! Fewer factory farms, fewer pesticides, less genetically modified corn… I’d say the benefits of getting rid of Ronald go even beyond childhood obesity!

  6. jennylee10 on

    Yes, rest and retire Ronald. And give us all a rest. As an aunt of four adorable children, I would like to intervene on behalf of their parents. He’s everywhere they can’t constantly monitor and he’s effective at making them desire what they’re told they can’t have.

  7. East Coast on

    Excellent blog post Chris!

    Marketing icons have a profound impact on children, and Ronald McDonald is arguably the most effective marketing icon of all time.

    No matter which way you spin it Ronald is the chief promoter of a brand that has hooked kids on unhealthy food, spurring an epidemic of diet-related diseases like diabetes.

  8. Anonymous on

    Excellent post!

    You can compare fast food to tobacco in terms of long term health issues:
    the global epidemic of diet-related disease will soon bypass tobacco as the leading preventable cause of death on the planet. The numbers are staggering.

  9. Aaron in TO on

    Time to Vote!!!

    Should Ronald McDonald be Fired?

    http://www.healthhabits.ca/2010/03/31/should-ronald-mcdonald-be-fired/

  10. EthicsArbitrage on

    A Twitter Conversation: @EthicsArbitrage and @ethicsblogger

    To @ethicsblogger Joe Camel did not have hundreds of Joe Camel houses helping out thousands of children’s families. http://rmhc.org/what-we-do/# @ethicsblogger 18 minutes ago via web in reply to ethicsblogger

    From @ethicsblogger And if he had? Would that have made it OK to market cigarettes to kids? 25 minutes ago via web in reply to EthicsArbitrage

    @ethicsblogger Imagine Joe Camel houses for families of lung cancer patients. The question begged: WHY couldn’t Joe have done it? 18 minutes ago via web in reply to ethicsblogger

  11. Chris MacDonald on

    EthicsArbitrage:

    I’m still not sure I see your point. Are you saying that the charitable work excuses other wrongs or other negative impacts?

    You ask why Camel couldn’t have done something like what McDonalds does. I’m sure it could have. The profits were there. But presumably cigarette companies don’t want to sponsort cancer treatment centres because they don’t want their names associated with cancer.

    Chris.

  12. VP on

    Whoops, I thought this could be carried on Twitter, my mistake.

    I don’t see it as possible that at any point Joe Camel could have represented what Ronald McDonald does. Joe was like the kid you didn’t want your daughter hanging out with. Ronald, on the other hand, helped support the daughter’s hospital stay and her visiting parents.

    Joe is the white elephant that any company craves to be rid of; Ronald is the friendly favorite of parents and marketing departments alike.

    Joe was done in by problems from the image presented by his parent company: Ronald is so wholesome that he has the power to change MCD for the better, if they so choose and, if not, his legacy will outlive MCD through the Ronald McDonald House Charities.

    What forces, in the end, would lead to Ronald’s retirement? If I understand your post, he is so successful that healthcare workers, parents and representative from other firms will force him out? There is another way to look at it: he has been so successful as a representative of the Ronald McDonald House Charities that MCD continues to seek healthier way to employ him.

    EthicsArbitrage

  13. Chris MacDonald on

    EthicsArbitrage:

    My point is that, like Joe Camel, Ronald McDonald is a marketing gimmick aimed at kids, enticing them into an unhealthy lifestyle.

    Joe wasn’t a “white elephant” as you suggest he was. He was a successful marketing gimmick that RJ Reynolds only gave up after considerable public pressure and some lawsuits.

    I don’t see how Ronald McDonald is at all essential to McDonalds’ charitable work. They’re not obligated to do charitable work; if they want to do it, there’s no reason they can’t do it without a clown as a mascot.

    Chris.

  14. Chris MacDonald on

    p.s. for anyone who missed the link in my blog entry, here’s the Wikipedia page about RJ Reynolds’ wildly successful cigarette mascot, Joe Camel.

  15. Dan on

    In some respects, the issue is made almost too easy for you by focusing on the mascot rather than the products. I can imagine a scenario in which McDonald’s asks Ronald to resign, but I can’t imagine a scenario in which McD’s voluntarily ceases sales of “Happy Meals”.

    What I’m getting at, really, is that getting Ronald fired would be a hollow victory for those who think that kids’ exposure to unhealthy products should be reduced. And that leads me to think that good ol’ CSR isn’t going to do it. Addressing public health issues–of which this is ultimately an example–requires some regulatory measures as well.

  16. Chris MacDonald on

    Dan:

    I don’t deny that public policy intervention might be required.

    I’m just kind of arguing that the clown is the low-hanging fruit…he’s a way of not just feeding kids, but of marketing directly TO kids.

    Chris.

  17. Dan on

    Fair enough. But I’m going to press you a bit to identify the general principles and motives at work here, rather than engaging only with the specific case.

    So, I wonder whether the ethical concern that motivates the recommedation to fire Ronald has to do more with marketing *unhealthy* products to kids than with marketing to kids as such. I can imagine a decent case being made for the latter (and not just by those who take issue with markets as a whole), but I suspect your motivation is tied to the nature of product being marketed. So, for example, we (might) object to marketing whose aim is to get kids (to get their parents) to buy unhealthy foods, but not to marketing whose aim is to get kids (to get their parents) to buy sufficient quantities of orange juice.

    If I’m right about the motivation being tied to the nature of the product, then I think we’re driven to a more demanding ethical responsibiliy–namely, to ensure (through advocacy and/or regulation) that the unhealthy product not be sold (or that measures be taken to clearly label and tax it as the unhealthy product it is alleged to be).

    Is the ethical objection, then, directed at the unhealthiness of the product (with the consequence that you need to pursue a more robust criticism of McDs); or is it directed at marketing to kids as such (with the consequence that you need target mascots of healthy and unhealthy products alike)?

  18. Chris MacDonald on

    Dan:

    Fair question.

    Yes, the problem has to do with the product. But it’s not as simple as selling a plainly-unhealthy product. The problem is that McDonalds is selling a product that, when consumed occasionally, won’t hurt you at all, but that when consumed in large quantities is going to prove unhealthy.

    I sketched the problem (and my solution) here: Social Responsibility as Restraint

    Basically, I think it’s implausible to ask the company to stop selling, or to (vaguely) “try to sell a little less”, but it’s much more plausible to identify discrete behaviours that are ethical “low-hanging fruit.” And I think marketing to kids is in that category.

    Chris.

  19. Dan on

    On “Social Responsibility as Restraint”, I really like the statement of the problem:

    “So, what’s a well-intentioned company to do, when it knows that its product is relatively harmless, on a case-by-case basis, but relatively destructive, in the aggregate?”

    But underwhelmed by the proposed solution, at least as a model for McDs to emulate: “Coke and Pepsi’s agreement to eliminate sugary drinks from US schools is a good example. Kids are in a special moral category, and sales at schools don’t account for a lot of profits, so taking this action is praiseworthy but not demanding.”

    Here you have a product that need not be marketed exclusively as a kid’s product. Adults can and do drink pop/soda. But what does one do with a product designed *as* a kid’s product–e.g., “Happy Meals”. If you fire Ronald and discontinue happy meals, the hit to the bottom line could be huge–it’s praiseworthy *and* demanding. In that case, I’m hard pressed to find a case for voluntarily action that wouldn’t need to be backed up by a threat of regulation.

  20. Chris MacDonald on

    Dan:

    I don’t necessarily disagree.

    The Happy Meal seems like low-hanging fruit, too. I just think the clown is a more obvious target, since it appeals directly to kids (whereas the Happy Meal is a kid-sized meal bought by parents *for* kids). But still, I think you’re basically right.

    Chris.

  21. VP on

    I appreciate being guided to Wikipedia for further information. Many of my academic friends tell me that Wikipedia is poisonous to the minds of young people and is destroying education as we know it. Come to think about it, they said the same thing about Socrates.

    Joe Camel was a white elephant as soon as he became a liability to Philip Morris’s new image (they had to even their NYSE ticker symbol from MO to PM). He had no life besides the poisonous product he sold to children so when the dangers of the product were fully known he was dead meat. I think it’s a little rich for some particular group to say they killed Joe Camel.

    The question, as I see it, is whether Ronald McDonald is just like Joe Camel and is weak enough to be culled from the herd of successful mascots. There are already stories popping up in the US with headlines like “leave our Ronald alone” [ http://fredericksburg.com/News/FLS/2010/042010/04022010/538388
    http://blogs.bnet.com/business-news/?p=780 http://threesorryboys.com/blog/2010/04/01/leave-ronald-alone/ ].

    Joe Camel had his defenders late in the game, I’m sure, but the campaign against Ronald could easily turn into a cultural war (in the US, at least, which is another story). On one side: “You say we are dumb white trash not smart enough to know what to eat and not smart enough to know better than support an evil cartoon face that has helped thousands of sick children’s families. All of you tofu-eating . . etc.)

    You know the other side.

    Any bets on how long Ronald will be around? I believe MCD has been shrewd enough to keep his image healthy and he will adapt to new duties.

  22. Chris MacDonald on

    VP:

    You wrote:
    “The question, as I see it, is whether Ronald McDonald is just like Joe Camel and is weak enough to be culled from the herd of successful mascots.”

    That may be your question. But I don’t think it’s the question, from a business ethics point of view. Ethically, the question isn’t whether RM is weak. The question is whether it’s unethical for McDonalds to keep using him.

    Chris.

  23. VP on

    We are having a dialogue of the deaf and the dumb.

    Let’s say Ronald McDonald survives this campaign, as I expect he will. What lessons might we draw?

    From what I understand, this would just prove how powerful this unethical marketing gimmick is.

    What if Ronald McDonald is forced out?

    It would prove that people finally recognized what a powerful marketing gimmick he is?

    Either way, the label of “unethical marketing gimmick” wins.

  24. Paul on

    WOW!

    The people of America have the power to guide and teach their children where good tasting food can come from… their own homes. Take the time to learn how to cook with good fresh and wholesome foods.

    Preparing food, good home cooked meals like Grand Ma and Grand Pa and Mom and Dad would make will keep our kids begging for their favorites and in the fridge looking for leftovers.

    Mickey D’s and Ronald are not our enemy. We are our own enemy.
    You can get rid of fast food by not buying it, vote with your dollar instead of your keyboard.


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