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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.”

Yeah. Ouch.

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?

Eat me! I’m fun!

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.


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