I first heard about the “Retire Ronald” campaign on April 1, so I assumed it was an elaborate April Fool’s prank. The website looked legit, and famous foodies were listed as advisers, but I couldn’t believe that anyone would spend so much time and energy trying to bring down a clown.
Of course I’ve since learned that it’s real, a project of Corporate Accountability International, the same watchdog group that helped topple Joe Camel. CAI thinks Ronald is messing with kids’ minds and health, so the group wants McDonald’s to send him packing. And I’m not sure how I feel about that.
We are not McDonald’s fans. (Shocker.) And not only because McDonald’s food is processed to death and supernaturally resistant to rot. It’s because McDonald’s has done more to industrialize and homogenize the U.S. food system than any other company, buying so much beef, pork, potatoes and other commodities (even apples) that it controls everything from the way animals are treated and food is processed to which produce varieties are grown (not many). And it’s continued selling the same junk here at home while eliminating artificial colors and supporting sustainable agriculture overseas. (Jamie Oliver just gave McDonald’s props for this. I see his point. I guess. But it bummed me out anyway.)
So I’d seem a natural to get on board. Except I’m inclined to think that a technicolor clown (or a creepy Burger King, for that matter) isn’t the problem. Ronald isn’t the one paying for the Happy Meal. That would be, um, us. The parents.
Maybe that’s easy for me to say because we don’t do fast food and my daughter doesn’t watch commercial TV. She isn’t inundated by the 20,000 junk-food commercials (out of 40,000 commercials total) that the Retire Ronald report says each kid watches in a year. (Really? That’s 110 commercials a day.) McDonald’s does sponsor programming on public television, which is why my daughter once called the Ronald statue at a thruway rest stop “that funny clown who’s on PBS Kids.” I’ll acknowledge that I may live in a bubble in this regard.
But. Seriously. Is the clown to blame?
I want to share something from a strangely fascinating book called “Kids Dine Out: Attracting the Family Foodservice Market with Children’s Menus and Pint-Sized Promotions.” Published in 1993 under the auspices of Restaurants & Institutions magazine (which, incidentally, is closing shop this week), the book offers restaurant owners this bit of advice:
“They may be listed as ‘kids’ meals’ on menus and menuboards. But don’t overlook the fact that the underlying purpose of packaging special meals for children is to appease grown-ups. When children are placated and entertained, parent satisfaction is guaranteed.”
Following that logic, all those fast-food ads are not in fact aimed at kids, but at us. And if they don’t snag parents directly, there’s another trick in the bag. The Retire Ronald report mentions “pester power” or “the nag factor,” which is how marketers describe children’s ability to wear down “gatekeepers” (yes, parents). Here’s Lucy Hughes, co-author of the study behind the concept: “If we could develop a creative commercial (that) encourages the child to whine, or show some sort of importance in (the ad) that the child understands and is able to reiterate to the parents, then we’re successful.”
OK. This is the part where I should pump my fist and state my case for reclaiming control — just resist the machine, moms! — but that tactic is just stinking devious.
If taking personal responsibility is so effective, what, then, is the point of child-focused advertising? If it didn’t work, if it were as easy as a parent saying no, then food companies wouldn’t shell out billions to market to kids. Or develop constantly changing lines of toys to feed the pester power (toys that one California county has now partially banned).
Is it simply that the vast majority of people won’t resist, won’t take responsibility? Or is there really something to this predatory marketing?
Kids don’t need to be entertained to enjoy food. They shouldn’t be making food choices based on cartoon characters or toys. And despite what marketers say, there is no such thing as “kid food.” But the food industry has spent untold amounts of money devising sneaky tricks like the nag factor. And, did you know, as of 2006, nearly 12% of elementary schools and 24% of high schools sold branded fast food? McDonald’s has even advertised on report cards. Report cards.
Then there’s the matter of location. The Retire Ronald report quotes McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc as saying: “Back in the days when we first got a company airplane, we used to spot good locations for McDonald’s stores by flying over a community and looking for schools. Now we use a helicopter, and it’s ideal.”
So I don’t know. The food industry claims it can reliably self-police marketing to kids, but a recent report card from the Center for Science in the Public Interest gave a “C” or lower to all but 11 of the 74 food manufacturers and restaurant chains analyzed. (No one got an “A.”) And I do think we won’t see serious food reform in this country without some big-guns intervention.
Maybe the answer lies somewhere in the middle: Food companies need to stop going after our kids. And we need to stop letting them.
What do you think? And have you talked to your kids about food marketing and how it influences food choices?
Since publishing this piece, I’ve been hearing a lot about “Chew On This: Everything You Don’t Want to Know About Fast Food,” a young readers adaptation of Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation.” It’s now on my to-read list. Maybe you and your kids will find it interesting as well.
Copyright protected by Digiprove © 2011 Christina Le Beau
When my son was little 4 thru 8 I would give into the happy meal nagging all the time and several times a week. I am not proud to admit that. But I know firsthand how these companies have control over us. When I think back, I am mad that I allowed it. My son is now 12 and we gave up fast food a few years ago. We are becoming a more educated bunch of people and I like that. I can honestly attest to the fact that once I stopped my sons weekly McDonald’s visits, he started to do better in school.
One last funny thing…I work in an office building and the tenant in the office next to me is the McDonalds Southwest Florida HQ. Every time I pass by the office, seeing all the executives scurrying about I am tempted to pull a Michael Moore style interview on them. Oh, and on Halloween we all go over to their office to have our picture taken with Ronald. I know him personally. He’s pretty cool aside from his penchant for being a junk food pusher. LOL!
Hmmm, if Ronald retires, that’s going to mean a lot of out-of-work clowns.
What do you think Plan B is for a clown? LOL!
I just read a great book called Appetite For Profit by Michelle Simon that details why we can’t trust the food industry to police themselves.
The fast food industry has spent a lot of money to make this an issue of “personal responsibility” and one that should be addressed by talking to your kids. But we are beyond a point where we can all choose to eat healthy food. The food environment created by Big Ag and the fast food industry is so unhealthy that we need systemic change.
Public health advocates used to focus on educating people about the health risks of smoking until they realized that many people smoked as a form of rebellion. Broader policy changes such as indoor smoking bans and bans on advertising were a key factor in reducing tobacco-related deaths.
It is important to talk to children about food but what we really need is government policies that hold corporations accountable to foster an environment more conducive to making healthy food choices.
I recently started following Simon’s blog, and I’m thinking I need to read the book, too. One of the links above (about the California county ban on fast-food toys) goes to her blog.
Big Ag and Big Food have gotten out of control, and I think you may have nailed it here: “What we really need is government policies that hold corporations accountable to foster an environment more conducive to making healthy food choices.”
Randall said, “What we really need is government policies that hold corporations accountable to foster an environment more conducive to making healthy food choices.”
That’s where it has to start, but I am not optimistic that it will. For example, Obama appointed former Monsanto lawyer, Michael Taylor to be the US food safety czar. This move doesn’t give me much hope that our government is not being bought and sold by US corporations that have no interest in the welfare of the American people. They just want to capitalize off of our wants. As Michael Pollan said, we have to vote with our forks, if not at every meal, at least at one a day. When the people, who are the majority tell the government, who are the minority, what they want, eventually something is got to give.
But right now, what we can do is keep sharing information with one another. At least as parents we can try to raise smart eaters, smart thinkers, and not sheep who will set the tone for the future generations.
I was so optimistic about food and agriculture under Obama, and I still haven’t given up hope, but I have cringed at some of the policies and appointments on his watch. Did you see the piece this week about White House chef Sam Kass waffling on calling the White House garden “organic”? Marion Nestle wrote about it on her Food Politics blog today (scroll down to the last item). You might recall the Big Ag uproar last year when the garden was planted and someone from an industry association wrote a letter to Michelle Obama basically calling her anti-American for promoting organics. The letter was promptly ridiculed and dismissed as industry propaganda, but now you have to wonder whether its message was heard. I sincerely hope Kass meant nothing by it. But I don’t know.
Good one, my dear- I totally agree that the clown is not the big issue here!
I don’t think it is just marketing intended for children that we need to worry about. I am appalled at the push for “fat free”, “sugar free”, and similar labels that are sold as healthy. So many claims on packages intended for adults, and people are being led to believe that these processed items are GOOD for them. I was told, vehemently, the other evening that a particular flavored water drink was “healthy” because the label said it had zero calories, even though when I flipped to the ingredients list, aspartame was the sole sweetener. Nothing I could say would dissuade the individual who had purchased that beverage from believing it to be a healthy drink.
I agree with you wholeheartedly that food marketing directed at children is devious, but it doesn’t stop with children.
I feel your pain. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the words “but it’s fat free” or “it has zero calories”. I feel like screaming. I say politely, but that is not the concern. The concern is the chemicals you are drinking or eating. Why do people not get this? Wait, I can answer that questions. It’s because they have been brainwashed. There is a whole lot of brainwashing going on every minute of every day and most people don’t even realize it. If you take a step back and really analyze it, it’s quite scary. But it’s all about education and sharing information and being tolerant of people who don’t get it. We have to help them get it. If not for them, but for their children.
Fantastic post! A student in my classes was reading “Chew on This”, which was a book on the same topic. I need to get a copy to read. When Jake was about 9, he wanted to go to MD’s for a Happy Meal and I asked him point blank if it was for the food (because he never really loved the food) or the toy. He said the toy.
We have never gone to MD’s since. Marketing makes me angry-we’ve done our best to teach Jake to question commercials, be skeptical, and that the companies will do anything to get his money, so be wary.
I’m thrilled you linked this up to Food Revolution Fridays. Lots of things to think about and discuss!
I actually think the question to frame this blog is not Retire Ronald OR reclaim responsibility. This sets up a false dichotomy…one the industry has sought to perpetuate for years (see the PR Watch posting on the Center for Consumer Freedom — a front group for Tyson, Cargill and others) that corporate accountability absolves parents of any responsibility (or vice versa). Truth is, the Retire Ronald campaign empowers parents to take collective action in support of the very personal dietary and lifestyle choices they make in the home.
Welcome, Lena, It’s great to have two folks from Corporate Accountability International joining the conversation. (I should have noticed before — and noted — that Randall, too, came in on a CAI server.)
I do see your point, but (headline creativity aside), I’m one parent who does not believe corporate accountability absolves me of my job. And I don’t think companies should have free rein to do as they please. As I mentioned in my post and in my response to Randall, I think systemic food industry change will come only with regulatory intervention. And I think Randall was right when he said holding corporations accountable can help create an environment where it’s easier to make good choices.
But I don’t think that means we have to set parents up as dupes who can’t function in the face of corporate manipulation.
For instance, in the Retire Ronald report I cite above, there’s a passage (in Michele Simon’s foreword) describing “pester power” and how it undermines parents: “Every time a parent has to say no to a child, it’s another letdown, another way that a parent has to feel bad about not making that child happy.”
Frankly, that’s insulting. Being a parent means making hard choices and teaching kids to navigate the world, and sometimes that means saying no. But I’m not going to feel guilty about that. Especially if what I’m saying no to is something that protects my child’s health.
So for CAI to frame its case with language like that is kind of counterproductive, you know?
Hi Christina, I’m sorry if you misunderstood my comment. My point was that parental responsibility does not preclude corporate accountability. No one at Corporate Accountability feels parents should just kick back and point a finger. Holding corporations accountable for actions that undermine our choices is A PART of parental responsibility and empowerment, frankly. It’d be irresponsible for individual parents to feed their kids well, make sure their kids get enough exercise and not challenge the institutional forces that make doing both more challenging.
I’m sorry you feel the language you site above is painting parents out to be dupes. That is not the intent and I hope you’ll find that within the context of the larger report is not how it reads. The intent is only to point out the very real psychological impulse upon which marketers prey. We agree with you in your assessment of the role of parents, but if everyone were playing this role already we wouldn’t be in a situation right now where 1 in 3 people will become diabetic in their lifetime as a result of their diet.
Our aim is to empower parents with information. If they can recognize marketing-induced nagging and pestering, they will be more inclined to resist it…to make the hard choice you elude to above. We’d invite your thoughts, however, on ways to make this more clear. Because if this was your response, I’m sure there are other parents like yourself who would have the same reaction.
Many thanks again for your thoughtful blogging on the issue. Visit us on Facebook anytime!
Lena, thank you for writing back. I see now that I misread your point (I’m sorry about that), and it sounds like we’re actually saying the same thing. Yes, absolutely, we should hold corporations, institutions and government bodies accountable. Indeed, the whole point of this blog is to encourage parents to challenge a food culture and food system that would prefer we and our kids sit back and be (as my title says) “spoonfed.”
I just struggle with finding that balance between regulation and education, which is why I wrote this post the way I did, to work through my feelings on the issue and get others thinking about it as well. As you saw, I arrived somewhere in the middle, acknowledging that McDonald’s needs to be held accountable, but also emphasizing that parents (more parents) need to step up and accept responsibility.
If you watched Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution show, you saw that even after the schools had implemented changes in the cafeteria, plenty of kids were still brown-bagging some horrible food. In that case, the institution (the school district) owned up to its accountability (well, except for that colored milk nonsense), theoretically paving the way for parents to make better choices at home. But the parents did not. These things can take time, I know, and it’s not an entirely parallel analogy, but I mention it to show that A does not always lead to B.
As for the language itself, maybe just keep that in mind going forward? Be aware of opportunities to talk about parents as partners, that sort of thing.
Thanks for the response, Christina. Glad to get your thoughts. I do think we’re saying the same things in different ways 🙂 I hope we can continue the dialog. I think the points you raise are super valuable. This is certainly a partnership with parents with a lot of promise. We appreciate the feedback.
I don’t have kids, but I have witnessed my nieces and nephews begging to go to Burger King or McDonald’s because of the toy. :-/ It’s true the parents don’t have to give in, but why subject kids to the advertising in the first place?
Personally, I think there is quite a bit of room for more responsibility all around. But I am also sick to tears of advertising. Sometimes it just seems as if I have no right to quiet enjoyment sans sales pitches. The button setting I want on next generation televisions is the one that makes my screen go black for the duration of commercials. I have two teenagers. One is generally disgusted by ads. The other generally responds with “how soon can I get that?” He drives me crazy. CRAZY. It’s like he got some mutant mega-consumer gene and ads are his crack.
I don’t have kids (yet) but my husband were just discussing this over the weekend. We both grew up with McDonald’s commercials, and while Grimmace and the Hamburgler gave us the warm fuzzies, neither of us were enamored with Ronald (except that you couldn’t get the other two without him). We also thought back and remembered that what made us want McD’s was the toys and the fries (you know, when they were fried in beef tallow and not veg oil that’s been doctored with a chemical that they won’t disclose). ONLY the toys and fries made us want McD’s. Just like we loved Toy’s R Us’ giraffe and jingle, but never begged to go to the store.
Certainly the advertising has an effect, but I suspect that even the advertisers don’t know exactly WHAT part of the ad is effective.
I agree whole-heartedly with your blog Christina. We need both accountability from parents and industry. Although I didn’t read every response, one point that makes me absolutely crazy and I didn’t see mentioned, is the cheaper price of junk food compared to healthier choices. This dissuades a number of people I know from choosing the better item as their mindset is there budget doesn’t allow for it.
Then of course there is the fact that grocery stores have taken the “get healthy revolution” as an opportunity to make much larger profits on extremely thin margins (typically 1-2% compared to many other industries of 5-10%+) on organic, better made food.
Lastly I wonder if anyone else did a double and triple take at the High Frustose Corn Syrup adds that ran the earlier part of this year. I have since completely stopped watching television as there is nothing truly worth viewing. It amazes me that these add should be allowed to air, I mean honestly! To say this “ingredient” to put it politely, is like sugar and is okay in moderation, is as bad as saying aspertame isn’t that big a deal. What it only “poisens you a little?”
Would anyone in there right mind say that to a dog owner about frogs? Don’t worry about your dog biting a frog, they only have the potential of being slightly poisened? ……
How did our nation, with all it’s ability, become one of such gullability? >sigh<
Those HFCS ads are something else, alright. For anyone who hasn’t seen them, check out the corn industry’s propaganda website, SweetSurprise.com. Lots of eye-opening (and jaw-dropping) stuff over there.
I agree that parental responsibility and also demanding that corporations be held accountable are both important. But in the meantime, while we wait for billion dollar industries to cease marketing to easy prey, a parent’s responsibility comes first. Just as we would protect our children from sexual predators, it is also our responsibility to protect them from corporate predators that are sending messages through advertising that are destructive to the well-being and healthy physical and psychological growth of our children. I just don’t understand how parents suddenly find themselves “reluctantly” in McDonald’s buying their children a Happy Meal. You decided to have children. You strapped you child into the car seat. You drove to McDonald’s. You bought the Happy Meal. I have a 10 and 6 year old who would never touch fast food. Only recently did they find out who Ronald McDonald is. My 10 year old only ate at McDonald’s once while out with a friend and her parents, and got sick to her stomach. My six year old’s favorite foods are salmon, broccoli and avocado. My 10 year old’s favorite restaurant is Thai. They order off of the adult menu in restaurants. There was never any debate, any power struggle, it was just how we did things. They are only rarely exposed to any advertising. While I am disgusted with corporations marketing to children, ultimately it is my responsibility and no one else’s.
“… while we wait for billion dollar industries to cease marketing to easy prey, a parent’s responsibility comes first.”
Absolutely right, Michelle. Corporations need to back off, but parents need to, well, parent.
Just a heads-up to anyone who was following the comments on this post (from oh so many months ago): I’ve just posted a new piece about the Happy Meals toy crackdown and, more specifically, about McDonald’s efforts to teach “nutrition workshops” for school kids. Yes, nutrition workshops.
We talk about marketing (wrt food & toys & life in general) with our children all the time. We talk about healthy food, and moderation, and nutrients, etc.
I could care less if there is a Ronald or not. We haven’t eaten at McDonald’s in a very long time, and our kids are fine with that, because they know what crap the food is at that chain in Canada. (Before that, it was an occasional meal that we didn’t particularly enjoy while on the run.) However, we had the pleasure (and yes, it was a pleasure) of eating at McDonald’s in France a year and a half ago, and was it ever an enlightening experience. The quality of food there was so far above and beyond anything that McD’s offers in Canada (and I’m assuming the USA) that I almost cried. And why it it better? Because the French Government has decreed that it must be better.
I’m waiting for our Canadian government and our American neighbours to step up and set strong legislation to protect food, and provide *something* to assist our local farmers, so that we can all eat healthy food that doesn’t break the food budget each month. There absolutely needs to be more education for people, but also more regulation, and subsidies (in some form or another) for healthy food from local suppliers.
That’s interesting, Joy, about the McDonald’s food in France. I know McDonald’s has done things like eliminate food dyes and source more sustainable food in some locations outside the U.S., but I’d sort of assumed that the food was still, well, McDonald’s food. Would love to hear more about the differences.