By Quentin Fottrell
McDonald’s is adamant: he never went away. But Ronald McDonald, 48, appeared in a new TV advertisement this week. Interestingly, he’s not behind the counter selling burgers. In one ad he larks about with an empty picture frame, promoting the Happy Meal website where kids can upload their pictures with Ronald. Marketing experts say this is a sign that he’s taking a bigger role front-and-center at the fast-food giant.
Nutritionists and at least one city councilman in New York aren’t exactly rolling out the red carpet for him. They argue that McDonald’s is advertising burgers and French Fries to kids and changing tack from their more sophisticated foray into McCafes, which they say target 20-somethings and promote an image of McDonald’s as a place to eat salads and sip low-fat milk.
Ronald has quite a few detractors. Margot G. Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Washington-based non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest, says McDonald’s staff offer soda and fries by default: “It really doesn’t matter if the promotion involves the clown, a toy or a movie tie-in. Once you go to McDonald’s the kids are most likely to get an unhealthy meal.”
McDonald’s spokeswoman Danya Proud disagrees with this analysis and says Ronald never left TV. “These new commercials are simply an evolution, and a new chapter in Ronald’s life.” She also says customers have “multiple options” to choose from, including pre-peeled, sliced Apple Dippers as an alternative to fries and Chicken McNuggets.
Some branding experts say Ronald’s role is to sell fast food to kids and the salads were actually targeted at their parents. Fred Geyer, partner with brand and marketing consultancy Prophet, says, “Mom wasn’t eating in McDonald’s as much as her kids. Salads and wraps appeal to her. But from a marketing perspective Ronald McDonald is not how you go after 22-year-olds.”
Proud says Ronald is all about promoting a fun, positive image for the entire group, and says McDonald’s is committed to creating even more healthy options. “Ronald has been around for decades, and continues to play a significant role in our business,” she tells Pay Dirt. But even before the latest campaign, McDonald’s and the Happy Meals that come with kid’s toys were in the crosshairs.
In Santa Clara, California, McDonald’s can’t promote Happy Meals unless they meet certain nutritional standards; San Francisco follows suit with similar legislation in December. In New York, Councilman Leroy Comrie told ABC News that fast-food meals with toys should not exceed 500 calories or 600 milligrams of sodium. Comrie said his own weight problems spurred him on. Others critics tell him: “Heal thyself.”
The Center for Consumer Freedom, a non-profit group representing the food and drinks industry, defends McDonald’s and says six-year-old children don’t drive to McDonald’s on their own; they need their parents to take them there. “It’s ultimately the responsibility of parents, not nanny-state bureaucrats, to make healthy choices for their kids,” it says in a statement.
The group, which never minces its words, says the real issue is about maintaining a balanced diet and took aim at Comrie’s appearance, calling him “a super-sized bureaucrat who doesn’t want kids to grow up to be just like him.” A super-sized bureaucrat? You’d never hear kids talking about Ronald McDonald like that. Do you think the clown gets a bad rap?