“What?” XUP Jr. said to me the other day. “They used to have television commercial for cigarettes?” She was dumbfounded.
Her question stemmed from some bit on TV about Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man. Those two mascots were retired thanks to the efforts of a corporate-responsibility watchdog group, Corporate Accountability International. This same group is now lobbying to retire Ronald McDonald.
Retired physician Alfred David Klinger, a volunteer with the group, recently spoke at McDonald’s annual meeting, telling the company that:
Ronald McDonald is a pied piper drawing youngsters all over the world to food that is high in fat, sodium and calories. On the surface, Ronald is there to give children enjoyment in all sorts of way with toys, games and food. But Ronald McDonald is dangerous, sending insidious messages to young people.
In response, McDonald’s said something like, “No friggin’ way we’re retiring the clown.” What they actually said for the media was:
He communicates effectively with children and families around balanced, active lifestyles. He does not hawk food.
Since Ronald McDonald made his first TV appearance in 1963 (portrayed by Willard Scott), he’s become as recognizable as Santa Claus to children everywhere.
(Willard Scott’s original Ronald McDonald TV appearance, 1963)
Although Ronald seems to have left McDonaldland, Mayor McCheese, the Hamburglar, Grimace, Birdie the Early Bird, and The Fry Kids behind, he is still, and will continue to be The McDonald’s Corporation’s “Chief Happiness Officer.” (Yes, that’s what they actually call him)
But with childhood obesity a serious and growing problem, a lot of people are looking at fast food places to tone down their child-targeted advertising.
On the other hand, many people will say things like:
- Stop trying to legislate how a restaurant wants to do business.
- It’s parents’ responsibility to decide what their kids are going to eat, not the government’s.
- Who cares about mascots and advertising – you always have the choice not to go to McDonald’s.
Except, as I’m sure parents of young children know, it’s not always that easy.
McDonald’s uses helicopters to search out locations for new restaurants. One of their main criteria is proximity to schools. So, if your kid has money and you’re not around, it’s easy for him to head next door to McDonald’s at lunchtime.
McDonald’s also offers free in-school shows to elementary schools. The shows, featuring Ronald McDonald live, are: educational and interactive and help teach children about the environment, self-esteem, personal character, reading and fire safety. (And kids get valuable McDonald’s coupons and collectible toys)
In the U.S. children under 12 represent approximately $40 – $50 billion in direct purchasing power, and influence another $670 billion in family purchases every year.
Children aren’t able to assess and judge advertising in the same way adults can. Even one 30-second commercial can influence what a child as young as two wants. It’s no accident that the Ronald brand is everywhere – on TV, on the food wrappers even on the high chairs and bibs. And let’s not forget the PlayPlaces, Happy Meals and collectable toys. “Limited time” toy series are an excellent way of getting kids to keep coming back within a short period of time in order to collect the entire “valuable” set of toys.
But can’t parents just say no?
Advertisers rely on something they call “Pester Power”. It’s an aggressively studied, honed and carefully used tactic to get kids to nag their parents into purchasing something for them.
It takes a lot for parents to keep saying no over and over and over and over again – especially when it’s been a long, hectic week and everyone is hungry, cranky and in no mood to cook. Advertisers know this well. They have gone so far as to classify “Pester Power” according to identified stress factors and conditions like income, marital status, guilt and other factors that make parents more vulnerable to pestering. And then they use them to develop and target their marketing.
You Deserve a Break Today
Whaddya think? Should Ronald join Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man in the Former Insidious Advertising Mascots Retirement Villa?