Ronald McDonald has been the corporate mascot of the McDonald’s fast food restaurant chain for over 50 years.
Now, the battle to fight childhood obesity in the U.S. has raised questions about Ronald’s role as a marketing tactic intended to target young children.
Corporate Accountability International (CAI), an organization that, in the past, has confronted other instances of corporate abuse around the world, is now taking charge of the campaign to force Ronald McDonald into retirement.
CAI recently released a report — Clowning With Kids’ Health — that details the omnipresence of the iconic clown, especially in spaces frequently inhabited by children.
CAI has also started a campaign seeking signatures in support of Ronald McDonald’s retirement at retireronald.org.
The Case: CAI vs. Ronald
CAI’s report does make some inadequately evidenced generalizations about child psychology in explaining the motivations of children to eat at McDonalds, and most notably fails to take into account the role parents play in determining what kids eat.
But the report does makes some interesting points about the ubiquity of Ronald McDonald in American culture and calls out McDonald’s intentions, referring to them as “predatory” marketers.
Here are a few of the interesting details from the case against the spokes-clown cited in the report:
- The iconic clown first appeared in McDonald’s advertisements in 1963, inspired by another effective charmer of children: Bozo the clown. Now, Ronald, and other marketing aimed towards children, eats through a $17 billion/year budget for the fast-food giant.
- Other efforts to pull children into McDonald’s include McDonald’s Playplaces, Happy Meals and the toys that accompany them (also marketed to parents as “collectibles”).
- McDonald’s strategically aired commercials featuring the clown during peak television watching hours for children, for example, during Saturday morning cartoons.
- In 2005, following the release of the 2004 documentary, Supersize Me, Ronald traded in his clown suit for a signature red and yellow track suit to promote a new marketing campaign focused on healthier living.
- Ronald is found in other unexpected places: school programs promoting healthy lifestyles and good grades (the report gives examples of schools that offer pupils free McDonald’s as a reward for good grades), and in hospitals — including children’s hospitals.
- Ronald has even conquered the world wide web with his own interactive learning site for children (ronald.com). There’s no sign of advertising for McDonald’s on the site, but in case you didn’t catch the connection with the fast-food chain, its says on the home page “Hey Kids, This is Advertising!”