The nation’s public health crisis has a new face, and that face is covered in pancake makeup, has a bright red nose, and a shock of red hair–or so says Stacey Folsom, a spokeswoman for a national campaign calling for the retirement of Ronald McDonald.
The campaign, launched today by the Boston-based nonprofit Corporate Accountability International, is asking for McDonald’s to retire their iconic clown, who Folsom says, “For nearly 50 years … has hooked kids on unhealthy food, spurring an epidemic of diet-related disease.”
This morning, Corporate Accountability held a “retirement party” at San Francisco’s City Hall–complete with “Happy Retirement” signage, balloons, streamers, and healthy snacks–in order to celebrate their campaign launch and a report that found 47 percent of people nationwide favor the clown’s retirement. The report also indicates that 52 percent favor stopping all corporations from using cartoons to sell harmful products to children.
Corporate Accountability has held similar campaigns in the past to protest other marketing mascots like Joe Camel of Camel cigarettes. The R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company eventually retired Joe Camel after caving to pressure from an impending lawsuit claiming the character targeted children.
Today’s “retirement” event featured a panel of speakers who spoke about the ways Ronald McDonald specifically targets children, which the American Academy of Pediatrics has said, “is inherently deceptive and exploits children under eight years of age.”
Author Michele Simon said McDonald’s is taking a legal risk with their advertising because there are strict laws in many states, especially California, against issuing deceptive ads.
She added that even though parents may make the ultimate decision to purchase McDonald’s food for their child, the company knows many parents will cater to the demands of their children.
A McDonald’s spokeswoman responded to accusations of the campaign by saying that Ronald McDonald is the “heart and soul” of Ronald McDonald House Charities. “Ronald also helps deliver messages to families on many important subjects such as safety, literacy, and the importance of physical activity and making balanced food choices,” wrote McDonald’s spokeswoman, Becca Hary, in a recent email. “That’s what Ronald McDonald is all about, which our customers know and appreciate.”
Although representatives from Corporate Accountability will concede that Ronald McDonald may have had some positive influence with McDonald’s charity work, that doesn’t mean he’s off the hook. “There’s always an agenda behind it,” said Simon.
Wendy Gosliner, a researcher at UC Berkeley’s Center for Weight and Health who also spoke at today’s event, said that Ronald McDonald is part of a strategic marketing practice that encourages less healthy meal choices for children.
“Now, they’re promoting processed fresh apples dipped in caramel sauce and sweetened milk as ‘healthy’ choices,” said Gosliner. “Well, these meals and these choices are hurting our children’s health.”
Also today, as part of the same campaign launch, representatives from Corporate Accountability stopped passers-by outside of the McDonalds at 1455 Market St. to gather signatures of support of Ronald’s retirement. Many of those who signed the petition also agreed to have their pictures taken with one volunteer dressed as a clown, holding a sign that read: “Ronald – protect our children’s health – Retire!”
A Corporate Accountability representative at the scene, Keely Gerhold, said the organization is collecting the photos on their Web site, and then putting them together into a collage that they will send to McDonald’s. She said the group plans to hold a few more similar actions leading up to the McDonald’s shareholders meeting at the end of May, which they plan to attend.
Spokesman for Corporate Accountability, Nick Guroff, said that San Francisco’s action is one of 24 the organization has launched across the nation this week.