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No clowning around on this issue

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Esther Cepeda
May 23, 2011
— Could a 48-year-old clown with corporate directives to promote the benefits of physical activity really be conspiring to harm American children?

That’s what Corporate Accountability International, a group of 550 health professionals and organizations, wants people to believe about Ronald McDonald.


Their “Dear CEO Skinner” letter, printed in full-page ads in newspapers across the country, begins with facts about today’s childhood obesity epidemic and stated, “We know that reducing junk-food marketing can significantly improve the health of kids.”


The letter ends with a reasonable request: “Retire your marketing promotions for food high in salt, fat, sugar and calories to children, whatever form they take—from Ronald McDonald to toy giveaways.”


Unfortunately, calling out the clown is what produced headlines such as “Message to McDonald’s: Ditch Ronald,” and “McDonald’s Under Pressure to Fire Ronald.”


This is, of course, nonsense.


Corporate Accountability International soundly argues that kids can be taken in by debonair cartoon figures (Joe Camel), cute dogs (Spuds MacKenzie), and tough cowboys (the Marlboro Man). But clowns?


No child gives a hoot about clowns. These days, clowns’ grotesquely frightening imagery belongs to John Wayne Gacy, hard-core hip-hoppers the Insane Clown Posse and “The Simpsons’” Krusty the Clown.


So forget the Ronald business. McDonald’s says his role today is that of brand ambassador, and that he isn’t selling impressionable pre-teen children, or anyone else, a darned thing, though the company scoffed at retiring its mascot. The focus should be on the billion-dollar advertising campaigns which never feature Ronald McDonald, aimed at seducing children into “lovin’” food that should be allowed to pass their lips only as a very special treat.


Sophisticated print, TV and internet marketing designed to keep kids engaged with the very brands that contribute to their increasingly sedentary and nutritionally unbalanced lifestyles are nearly impossible to avoid.


Take Zoobles, the “it” collectible toy these days. The tiny, ball-shaped animals “spring to life” when you put them on their “Happitats.” If you’re the parent of a little girl between the ages of 2 and 10, you’ve not only heard of them but have probably been begged, harassed, needled, threatened or otherwise coerced into buying them.


Guess who’s offering them in their kid meals? You got it.


In the McDonald’s TV ad for the Zoobles Happy Meal, two young girls sip milk and lovingly “feed” their Zoobles sliced apples—sans the caramel they’re sold with. On the Happy Meal website—subtly labeled “Hey kids, this is advertising!”—kids can download Zoobles coloring sheets and computer games, and preview the soon-to-be-released “Kung Fu Panda 2” movie toys.


How is this different from a cartoon camel showing off how cool it is to smoke? It isn’t.


In his appearances, Ronald isn’t begging kids to eat food that is high in fat, sugar and salt. The marketing team at McDonald’s, like all junk food sellers, creates a seductive demand that effectively makes parents choose not whether their kids will eat junk, but rather when and how often.


And they’re doing this with little government oversight or regulation, and with the support of a public that naively believes in its “freedom of choice.” Welcome to the eye of the childhood obesity storm.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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