Down with the Clown: Why Ronald McDonald Has No Business Talking to Children
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In 1963 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 neighborhoods 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.