Ronald McDonald: A Marketing Conundrum

How often do advocates for children’s health issues find themselves in complete agreement with advertising executives on Madison Avenue?

It certainly didn’t occur during the 1990s, when a coalition of the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, and the American Lung Association petitioned Congress to ban RJ Reynolds from using its animated Joe Camel character to sell cigarettes. They bitterly complained that the advertising campaign represented a poorly disguised attempt to “hook” children on smoking.

Nor did it occur in 2007, when the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood asked the Division of Advertising Practices of the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the marketing tie-ins of violent films with television shows, food promotions, and toys. They charged that such advertising campaigns, when linked with PG-13 rated films like The Transformers, exposed children to psychologically harmful levels of violence.

Last week, another coalition of advocates criticized a major American corporation for conducting a marketing campaign that primarily targets children. This time, however, many advertising executives actually echoed their concerns.

You Deserve A Break Today!

The American corporation that was criticized last week was McDonald’s, the icon of fast food. The attack was neither new nor unexpected; in fact, the firm has been the target of attacks by children’s health advocates throughout its history. As recently as last year, for instance, it failed to prevent Santa Clara County in California from outlawing the giveaway of toys with Happy Meals.

Last week, though, the focus of such attacks shifted from the franchiser’s food products to its chief spokesperson. Or, more specifically, to its chief spokes-clown. More than 550 advocates for children’s health concerns jointly issued a public letter that recommended the immediate retirement of the mascot Ronald McDonald. It was accompanied by a shareholder proposal at the McDonald’s annual investor meeting, one presented by a group of nuns, that recommended that the firm issue public reports on its corporate social responsibility regarding the spread of childhood obesity.

CEO Jim Skinner was feisty and combative at the shareholder meeting, declaring that “Ronald McDonald is going nowhere!” And yet a number of marketing executives, individuals who can usually be counted on to praise the advertising campaigns of American multinational corporations, are starting to question the value proposition of Ronald as well.

Yo quiero, Taco Bell!

These skeptical marketing experts may have a point; after all, the fast food industry has long promoted corporate mascots of questionable value. The latest reincarnation of Burger King’s royal mascot, for instance, has recently been called “blatantly offensive” by mental health advocacy groups and other social welfare organizations. And Gidget, the feisty spokes-dog Chihuahua for Taco Bell, was retired after a number of cultural advocacy groups complained about its perpetuation of ethnic stereotypes.

But why retire Ronald McDonald? One ad agency executive notes that, like Gidget, Ronald simply fails to inspire prospective customers to purchase food products. “It’s really remarkable how often I saw the word ‘creepy’ in the survey comments (of focus groups),” explains Ace Metrix Vice President Jack McKee.

Others note that American society may have evolved beyond the stage where a 1960s-era clown and his cronies can appeal to contemporary parents and their children. After all, although Ronald himself still inhabits television commercials, his friends Mayor McCheese, Grimace, and the Hamburglar have all been retired from view, along with their McDonaldland fantasy world.

Product vs. Pitchman

Even though CEO Jim Skinner has chosen to support his clownish mascot, it is indeed self-evident that the images of his retail environment and his corporate pitch man — though once well aligned — are now growing increasingly discordant. The food itself is becoming more healthy and more fashionable, served within restaurants that are rapidly evolving into coffee bars with flat screen televisions, lounge furniture, and complimentary wi-fi service.

But Ronald himself has not changed at all since 1966, when his image was tweaked to remove the “paper cup nose” and “food tray hat” that accompanied Willard Scott’s original version. The contemporary mascot wears a plastic neon-emblazoned clown suit of red and yellow, reminiscent of the original decor of the restaurant signs and benches.

It is understandable, perhaps, that McDonald’s is reluctant to retire a corporate mascot that remains one of the most recognizable characters in the world. Nevertheless, considering the dissonance between the image of the firm’s evolving retail environment and the image of its primary marketing spokesperson, it may be time for the organization to modernize Ronald’s image.

After all, KFC successfully transformed the image of its deceased founder Colonel Harland Sanders into a modern animated figure, and Quaker Oats (and its predecessor firms) transitioned its purportedly stereotypical version of Aunt Jemima into a contemporary spokesperson as well. If these firms were able to modernize the images of their corporate mascots to make them consistent with their contemporary marketing themes, why couldn’t (and shouldn’t) McDonald’s do so?

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