Thursday, May 19, 2011

He's Just a Clown.

McDonald's, the fast food juggernaut with unbelievable staying power, recently became the target of nutrition advocates who argue that the company's kid-friendly mascot encourages children to eat food which makes them overweight. This isn't the first time the company has been at the forefront of the childhood obesity epidemic, and it's not the first time that someone has suggested that Ronald McDonald retire.

Developed in the 1960s and played by the delightfully weird Willard Scott, Ronald McDonald—the character—began as a typical silly clown, a marketing scheme that few expected to stick around, much less morph into the ketchup-and-mustard-colored smiling spokesperson he is fifty years later.

As you can see, the mascot probably turned off a good number of potential customers who suffer from coulrophobia, especially at stores where a life-size replica of the guy sits like an embalmed stiff on a bench outside. Regardless, the argument from the dissenters insists that McDonald's unfairly uses the clown to market to children, who then drive themselves to the restaurant every morning for Egg McMuffins and will eat lunch there 4-5 times per week.

I can see their point; after all, for those kids who can't drive, they've generally got very well-developed nagging skills which most parents are powerless against. There's nothing like a screaming, out-of-control kid who's not getting his way, and plastic hamburgers are excellent ways to shut their faces.

We've seen explorations of McDonald's nutrition in documentaries like Super Size Me, making convincing arguments about how the chain has used its strategically-placed playgrounds in rural areas that lack a public playground to act as a whining double-whammy against even those parents who are excellent at ignoring their child's unreasonable demands. Also, they give away toys with their food. A parent just can't compete.

But actually, those playgrounds kind of act as a public service, bringing a fun play area to a region that may not be fortunate enough to afford one, and supplying plastic food at the same time. It's two birds with one stone for many parents. In fact, it's actually a lot better than McDonald's supplying a bunch of couches with video games, right? After downing 900 calories worth of food, that kid's gotta burn off something.

I'm actually pretty certain that the clown, the playgrounds, and the toys are not the cause of childhood obesity, but combined with the endorphin-releasing plastic food that kids crave, the whole package becomes a whine-inducer so strong, so powerful, that parents will repeatedly take their kids there despite the obvious health concerns.

McDonald's takes a different approach. Rather than putting the rightful blame on parents for letting their children's weight get out of control, they continue to insist that their food is perfectly healthy in moderation, and even go as far as to say that its food is "high quality."

What good would firing Ronald McDonald do? He didn't do anything wrong. He didn't force-feed the kids like the cows that were made into the hamburgers. He didn't drop an f-bomb on the air at any point. He didn't even give inappropriate hugs to little children. McDonald's already quietly retired its entire cast of anthropomorphic characters, including (the very unfortunately named) Grimace, Birdie the Early Bird, Mayor McCheese, Officer Big Mac, the Fry Guys, Hamburglar, Cosmc, Mac Tonight, The Professor, Captain Crook, the McNugget Buddies, Grimace's Irish Uncle O'Grimacey, the Hamburger Patch, the Happy Meal Gang, Bernice, and even Ronald's dog, Sundae. THEY TOOK AWAY THE POOR BASTARD'S DOG. LET HIM KEEP HIS JOB! Sorry.

Ask a little kid: Which part of McDonald's do you like most? Is it:
  • The endorphin-releasing plastic food
  • The toys included with the plastic food
  • The playground
  • The fact that mom takes you there every time you cry
  • Or the beef-loving clown?
My guess is they're not going for the stiff clown with a fixed stare and permanently crossed leg propped up on the bench outside. Actually, McDonald's is probably doing its part to prevent childhood obesity by accelerating the development of the vegetarian lifestyle partially inspired by the disturbing imagery of a beef-loving clown. Let's take a look at some statistics concerning American children:
  • Percentage of children that go to McDonald’s at least once a month: 85% 
  • Percentage of children who are obese: 33%
  • Percentage of children with crippling clown fear: 15%
Actual figures retrieved from semi-reputable sources

Well, that's alarming. Imagine if we removed the clown element altogether. That obesity rate would skyrocket!

McDonald's is not going to drop their biggest marketing device. Ronald McDonald is one of the most recognized characters of all time, and is identifiable in nearly every country in the world, as the Thai Ronald McDonald statue shown above proves. Dropping him would be one of the stupidest moves in marketing history. It might be different if he was dressed up in blackface, but he's not. He's just a clown.

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