About 17 percent of U.S. children aged two to 19 years old are obese, and since 1980, the obesity rate among children of those ages has almost tripled. Clearly, childhood obesity is an epidemic in the U.S. Do fast food marketers share part of the blame? Consider that Ronald McDonald, that childhood icon, is one of the most recognizable mascots in the world. Some people are even comparing him to the mascot of old, Joe Camel. An Adage article even asks, “Is Ronald McDonald the new Joe Camel?”
Joe Camel once was the advertising mascot used for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company’s Camel cigarettes. Camel was once the most recognizable brand among children. Within a year of the introduction of Joe Camel, Camel cigarettes became the third most popular cigarettes among children aged 12 to 18 years, and within three years, preference for Camel cigarettes jumped from 0.5 to 32 percent. Corporate Accountability International organized a Send Joe Camel Packing campaign in 1987. By 1998, R.J. Reynolds agreed to stop all advertising featuring the cartoon camel.
CAI has a similar campaign to retire Ronald McDonald. CAI even has a website, retireronald.org, devoted to campaigning McDonald’s to retire the iconic clown in its advertising. The website urges people to sign a card wishing Ronald a “speedy retirement.”
The Adage article quotes Neil Golden, chief marketing officer at McDonald’s USA, who, not surprisingly, defends the use of Ronald McDonald in advertising. “To compare Ronald McDonald to Joe Camel is unfair and inaccurate,” said Golden. “Ronald McDonald represents the joy and fun of the McDonald’s brand and brings happiness to people of all ages. He delivers messages to families on many subjects, such as safety, literacy, anti-bullying and the importance of physical activity.”
Is it really unfair, as Golden contends, to compare Ronald McDonald to Joe Camel? I believe it is not for several reasons: obesity, like cigarettes causes serious health problems, and like smoking, can shorten lives. Plus, the fact remains that Ronald McDonald is as recognizable to children today as Santa Claus. As an open letter to McDonald’s CEO Jim Skinner by CAI states: “Today, your icon is as recognized as Santa Claus, and the McDonald’s model of marketing is used by a range of abusive industries.”
There is growing support for retiring Ronald McDonald. About 65 percent of Americans polled in 2010 by CAI had a favorable impression of Ronald. However, 52 percent responded that they “favor stopping corporations from using cartoons and other children’s characters to sell harmful products to children.” Specifically, a total of 47 percent favor retiring Ronald as a corporate mascot.
Given the growing support for retiring that clown, it seems to me that it is time for McDonald’s to send him on his way to retirement. Using one of the most recognizable brand mascots in the world to market food high in fat and calories to children, the most susceptible group to advertising in society, is definitely not sustainable.
Photo credit: Flickr user, Mr ATM