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Down with the Clown: Why Ronald McDonald Has No Business Talking to Children

Ronald McDonald's peddling of happy fast food times to kids is at the dangerous forefront of the 17$ billion corporations spend on direct marketing to brainwash children.

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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 favor. 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 color, diet related disease is incredibly important -- one in two children of color 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 favorable 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 organization which I advise, has released a terrific report entitled Clowning with Kid's Health: The Case for Ronald McDonald's Retirement (PDF), 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.

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