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Clown Time Is Over

MED pediatrician wants to retire Ronald McDonald

v_Ronald McDonald.jpg

The clown’s prayers were answered when McDonald’s announced it wasn’t dumping Ronald McDonald. Photo by Flickr contributor Nick Hubbard (Mr. ATM)

The media have dubbed it the down-with-the-clown campaign: more than 1,000 health care professionals, including almost two dozen professors and staffers at the School of Medicine and Boston Medical Center, signed a petition earlier this month asking McDonald’s to halt all advertising to children, “from Ronald McDonald to toy giveaways.”

Among the signers of the petition, which appeared in ads in major newspapers, was Alan Meyers, a MED associate professor of pediatrics and a staff physician with BMC’s Nutrition and Fitness for Life Program. Meyers sits on the advisory board for the anti-Ronald campaign, funded by the Boston-based nonprofit Corporate Accountability International.

McDonald’s CEO Jim Skinner responded to the ad by vowing that the iconic red-haired clown “isn’t going anywhere.” McDonald’s shareholders, meanwhile, stiff-armed a proposal for a report on company responses to the obesity problem.

The signers attacked Ronald as part of a broader campaign against childhood obesity, which they say McDonald’s encourages by marketing unhealthful food to kids. They point to a 2010 Yale study suggesting that when children are presented with identical junk food, they prefer products with cartoon characters like Ronald plastered on the packaging.

Marketing junk food to kids “is toxic and really should be done away with,” says Meyers, who also blames other fast-food chains, as well as federal subsidies to producers of high-calorie junk food ingredients. Those subsidies tripled in the 1980s, the same time that obesity rates took off. McDonald’s was the pioneer in fast-food advertising, spending $665 million on ads in 2003, Meyers says, while Burger King’s ad budget was $385 million. That same year, the Centers for Disease Control had just $51 million to advertise its children’s health campaign.

Meyers discussed the issue with BU Today.

BU Today: What have you got against Ronald McDonald?
Meyers: I’ve been here since 1980. Over that time, I have seen—as every child health clinician has—this obesity epidemic tripling since a very specific point in time. This began sometime between 1980 and ’88. Rates were very stable before that. Something very big happened. We have seen changes in caloric intake, and that has followed changes in food production around 1983. That’s the point at which the food industry began producing an average of 500 calories extra per person, per day.

They produced more corn. The reason corn production went up was government policies and subsidies. They started to subsidize the crop and said, “However much you produce, we’ll purchase it.” Most corn is fed to livestock, and some of it is converted to high-fructose corn syrup. The meat is fattier—livestock are not evolved to consume corn, they’re evolved to consume grass. And more sugar in soda—high-fructose corn syrup was a boon to the junk food industry because it’s cheaper than table sugar.

Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s, discovered that including a toy with food brought the kids in the door. Now you had a meal of a higher caloric density, and a toy in there. You’re supersizing it—that was the other discovery. A paper in 2004 said on a typical day, almost a third of children aged 4 to 19 reported consuming fast food.

What do you say to claims that getting rid of toys and advertising and Ronald McDonald will not solve the problem as long as parents indulge their kids at McDonald’s?
There’s some truth to that. There’s also truth to the fact that advertising works. They have the best social psychologists that money can buy to give kids the tools to manipulate parents. It’s not a fair fight. Kids see 40,000 ads a year on TV. They’re bombarded, as are the parents. If you have a kid nagging all day long, “Take me to McDonald’s”—or some parents will say, “I’ll take you to McDonald’s if you’re good”—if the kids weren’t targeted, they wouldn’t be asking for it.

Why not demand a change in agriculture policy?
Absolutely. Why does a salad cost more than a Big Mac? It’s a long-term process. Politics are politics. The big interests are powerful, and they’re huge businesses. This is such a serious situation that we have to utilize every means we have. This campaign to stop this kind of advertising, to me, is public education.

McDonald’s claims, according to Reuters, that it “allows parents to swap milk or juice for soda in its Happy Meals. It offers sliced apples with caramel sauce as alternatives to French fries and burgers. It has added healthier options to its menu.”
The question is, does that affect behavior of the children who get pulled in to McDonald’s. I’ll show you the answer: a 2006 story from the New York Times.

The story that noted McDonald’s sales were up, not due to healthful food, but to “their dollar menu of traditional fast food”?
Right. That’s what the kids are eating.

Do you have kids?
I have two stepsons—they’re grown—and a granddaughter. We didn’t go for fast-food stuff. The marketing wasn’t as bad then. I don’t remember the same kind of pressure.

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.


12 Comments on Clown Time Is Over

  • Anonymous on 05.31.2011 at 6:44 am

    Although I agree that we are an overweight nation I think more positive outcomes come from changing attitudes of parents, children and adults about eating habits than this type of media grabbing stand. Think of all the products that are marketed this way, chuck-e-cheese, cereals, candy etc. Ronald also represents the Ronald McDonald house which is what I most associate him with. Let’s put our heads together and make some real change shall we..

  • Tom on 05.31.2011 at 7:17 am


    This is ridiculous. You can’t tell McDonalds not to advertise. Why single out one restaurant? It doesn’t make any sense. The government could ban all advertiing by restaurants to children. That would be more sensible.

    However, I don’t believe that would make any difference. I was a kid in the 70’s. They had McDonalds in the 1970’s and they soda too.

    How about computer games. They didn’t have those in the 70’s. Kids played outside more. If a kid is exercising then I think they can eat pretty much anything.

    A lot of things have changed, but McDonalds and their advertising campaign isn’t one of them.

  • Anonymous on 05.31.2011 at 9:26 am

    this is ridiculous

    Dear Prof. Meyers-

    Thank you for making my decision on where to have lunch today. I will be going to Mickey D’s and enjoying a big mac and fries. It will be a privilege to give McDonalds some of my hard-earned money to increase their profits and spend on advertising.

    Quit telling me and my children where we should eat.

  • Anonymous on 05.31.2011 at 10:05 am

    Only Part of the Issue

    You can’t blame it all on the clown, or on the size of the meal. It’s equally important to advertise healthy eating and exercise habits to both kids and their parents. Furthermore, the quality of the food itself is something that can and should be made healthier, for the benefit of the nation as a whole. The corporate agricultural industry promotion of corn along with corn-fed beef as a cheap, unhealthy alternative used by most fast-food chains is a major culprit better targeted in such campaigns.

  • Anonymous on 05.31.2011 at 10:07 am

    Stop fighting Darwin

    In Ray Kroc’s day–three generations ago–clowns were mildly humorous and fun. Nowadays clowns are considered weird and creepy, the realm of serial killers, child molesters, and the supernatural. Just look at that picture of Ronald. That’s not something fun; that’s something that stands outside your window at night, watching you while you sleep and licking the glass. The only kids who are going to be attracted to this sort of advertising are the dumb ones anyway. So let McDonald’s advertise how they want. Kids have lots of desires–but it’s crappy parents who give them everything they want.

  • Anonymous on 05.31.2011 at 11:05 am

    Instead of exterminating Ronald McDonald, why not just mail him the studies mentioned above and ask him to go to some kind of rehab for corporate executives. By having him emerge, repentant, contrite and transformed, everyone can save face!

  • Daniel Cusher on 05.31.2011 at 11:14 am

    Child abuse

    Dear ignorant parent: Professor Meyers will quit telling you where your children should eat when you stop poisoning your children. For comparison, Professor Meyers would probably also be telling you what air your children should breathe…if you let them smoke cigarettes. You see, he’s a DOCTOR. It’s his job to tell parents what their kids should eat, and a good parent would listen to that.

  • Anonymous on 05.31.2011 at 12:02 pm

    To 'this is ridiculous', It

    To ‘this is ridiculous’,

    It is precisely attitudes like yours that have led to a nation of fat, unhealthy kids who, for the first time in history, are likely to die younger than their parents. How about taking a look at the bigger picture Prof. Meyers is clearly aiming for and contemplating the issue of healthy eating for you and your children? True, McDonald’s aren’t the only ones to blame, but as the world’s largest fast-food chain, targeting them and the advertising they SPECIFICALLY direct at children seems like a pretty good place to start. Hopefully we can follow on from this with wider educational programs for parents, children and society as a whole. Tackling the food currently served in our schools would an excellent starting point…

  • Anonymous on 05.31.2011 at 4:43 pm

    When McDonald’s decides that the clown is no longer profitable, they will stop using Ronald.

    Until then, rather than dictate advertising policy, perhaps parents should demonstrate a little control over what their children eat. The “kids” are not out working for the money they spend. Parents provide the dollars, and they should also learn to do some parenting.

  • anonymous on 05.31.2011 at 4:51 pm

    Parents should make the call

    I am not a parent, but I am an aunt who is very involved with my nephew’s life (I mean babysitting etc., not telling my brother what to do). I don’t believe that the government should have the right to ban advertising. If you are going to go after McDonald’s, why not video game companies that market to kids? Aren’t they contributing to the lack of exercise kids are getting these days as well? Parents need to be in control of what their kids eat, and when the kids start making their own money in high school, they are going to do what they want, hopefully making smart choices. We had really healthy food in my house growing up, and occasionally we would go to McDonalds. Happy Meals were fun, but again, on occasion. When I got older, I ate what I wanted, but it sure wasn’t McDonalds all the time. If parents instill that this is “fast/junk food” then it should matter less who it is marketed to. Parents maybe should learn to cook more at home, and also learn to say no to their kids. I see little ones downing doughnuts, candy, and cake on the regular. We are raising a bunch of fatties, and I am looking to the parents being clowns, not Ronald McDonald.

  • Jim in New Orleans on 05.31.2011 at 10:35 pm

    It's About Moderation

    My daughters just finished their freshman year at their respective colleges. (They are triplets) All three are healthy and lean. As their father, I took them to McD’s about once every two weeks. I’d get them a bag of fries and they’d play in the playland. McD’s had great playlands in the 90s.

    Today they are healthy, not obese, and partake of generally healthy meals. There’s nothing wrong with McD’s taken in moderation. It seems like once again we are doing two things, both of them an inadequate response:
    1. We are blaming the producer (McD’s) for the obesity problem.
    2. We are abdicating parental responsibility with petitions like this.

    Good doctor, you don’t want parents to take kids to McDonald’s? Rather than circulate silly petitions, when the parents bring the kids to your office, tell them to STEP UP AND PARENT!! Geez, man.

  • Anonymous on 06.01.2011 at 1:21 pm

    Blame the parents.

    We are a capitalistic society and have to take the bad with the good.This society has to finally take responsibility for their own actions and stop blaming others because you can’t parent. This belief that Ronald Mc Donald is the root of the problem is nuts. Does Ronald come to your house and give children burgers free of charge? Nope! Its the parents in an attempt to save time pulling through a drive through rather than standing in front of a stove.

    Of course kids love Chicken Nuggets better than at home meals. I would rather have a big mac over vegetables.
    Lets start a petition to train parents how to be parents if we are becoming that pathetic of a society

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