Nutrition Politics

Abortion. Immigration. Taxation. In the United States, one national policy issue after another has tumbled into the quagmire of political polarization.

But nutrition? One would hope that rational minds at the opposing ends of the political spectrum could achieve a “meeting of the minds” about public school lunch programs. Alas, during the past two weeks, that issue exploded into rancorous political debate as well.

The argument began on May 1st, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a Press Release on its official government web site entitled Ag Secretary Perdue Moves To Make School Meals Great Again. Its indirect reference to Donald Trump’s political campaign slogan was sure to catch the attention of his political opponents.

And what did the Press Release announce? The federal government has decided to return certain school lunch ingredient decisions to local control. Some schools, for instance, may no longer need to serve all grain products in whole-grain form. Others may now be permitted to let low-sodium meals meet a less stringent sodium target. And all schools will soon be allowed to serve 1% flavored milk (gasp!) as an alternative to fat-free milk.

That drew the ire of former First Lady Michelle Obama, who appeared with her colleague Sam Kass at the annual summit of Partnership for a Healthier America. Ms. Obama’s response?

She pointedly questioned “… why someone is okay with your kids eating crap.” And Mr. Kass added that “… we’ve already seen (the Department of Agriculture) try to ensure there’s tons of salt …” in school meals.

Feeding children crap? With tons of salt? That’s a bit extreme, isn’t it? And yet the Release did include a few choice comments that undoubtedly provoked the ire of the political opposition.

For example, Perdue criticized the Obama-era regulations by claiming that “… kids aren’t eating the food, and it’s ending up in the trash …” He continued:

“A perfect example is in the south, where the schools want to serve grits. But the whole grain variety has little black flakes in it, and the kids won’t eat it. The school is compliant with the whole grain requirements, but no one is eating the grits.”

Perhaps it’s true that public school students throughout the South are rising up in rebellion because of little (albeit healthy) black flakes in their grits. On other other hand, perhaps Perdue is simply telling a folksy fictional anecdote. It’s impossible to tell from the Press Release, which provides no supporting information.

So where do we stand? Apparently, official nutrition regulations that make minor transitions from no-fat milk to 1% milk, and from whole-grain foods to not-quite whole-grain foods, are now being released to the public with folksy tales under sloganeering headlines. And opponents are now leaping to engage in battle by accusing government officials of feeding children “crap.”

Such discourse cannot possibly produce intelligent nutrition policy, can it? But in a world of rabid nutrition politics, it’s the only dish that is being served to us.

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?