The letter says, in part: “We ask that you heed our concern and retire your marketing promotions for food high in salt, fat, sugar, and calories to children, whatever form they take — from Ronald McDonald to toy giveaways.”
Retiring Ronald McDonald is a terrible idea for several reasons.
To begin with, if you want to discourage kids from going to a restaurant, your best bet is to make their mascot a vaguely creepy clown whose body is shaped like a tuber.
Besides, Ronald McDonald is clearly not in an economic position to retire just yet, since his only source of income is working at McDonald’s in a clown suit. And if he retires, I will have to pay for his health care, and by all appearances he has some sort of horrifying foot condition.
And he’s a fictional character.
But beyond these and other somewhat flippant responses to the letter (as Jennifer LaRue Huguet notes at The CheckUp Blog, “I would like to meet the family who actually finds itself compelled to drive to Mickey D’s because of an encounter — on TV, online or even in person — with Ronald McDonald”), there’s a more serious problem with the campaign’s underlying premise.
Are we really abdicating responsibility?
Maybe I am only writing this article because of years of programming by McDonald’s. Maybe the advertising has worked. Maybe I am a minion of the clown.
But I sincerely doubt it.
That is what is so irksome about the letter. People are working out just as much as they used to, it says. Parents have as much authority as they ever did, it says. What’s changed? Must be the advertising! It couldn’t be something we were doing. No, this must be McDonald’s fault.
It’s true, the child obesity debate has always been a difficult one. Difficult is an understatement.
I know of three things that do not exist: a unicorn, Santa Claus and an unproblematic way of telling your child to lose weight. My mother once frowned in my general direction while I happened to be standing near a scale, and my body image has yet to recover. Obesity is one of the most fraught issues imaginable. Even when we reproach someone with roughly the circumference of Topeka, we worry that we are only speaking up because of those curious Photoshop-sired sirens on the covers of our magazines, with their distorted notions of what it is to be beautiful, not because of the fact that once you weigh as much as a small moon your body slowly ceases to function. “You are beautiful the way you are!” we choke out. “Except for your struggling kidneys!”
Only someone with the approval rating of Michelle Obama could dare to tackle the obesity epidemic. And she’s come under fire for even such a calculatedly inoffensive statement as “Let’s move.”
“Michelle Obama is telling America we’re fat,” everyone shrieks, flinging kale and allegations at her.
This is like blaming a video store for illiteracy. “How dare you sell products that we want to buy more than books!” we hiss. “This is all your fault!” Well, no, it’s not. The way to get people to read more is not to stop advertising and selling video games, just as the way to prevent people from having extramarital affairs with their housekeepers is not to ban housekeeping.
“Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” asks Toby Belch in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.” That’s what these petitioners seem to think. No more cakes and ale, not for anyone. Or at least, no cake and ale advertising.
I might have more sympathy with the petition if I believed for a fraction of a millisecond that if McDonald’s shut its doors and switched off its ads, people would stop being obese. If only! But as Toby would be the first to point out, eliminating cakes and ale won’t make more people virtuous, just as eliminating the clown won’t make more people skinny.
So I find extremely frustrating the request that businesses act more responsibly than we do ourselves.
Some people clearly have distorted relationships with food. And maybe it’s because they saw McDonald’s advertising at the wrong moment in life, and it transformed them forever. Forget nature! Forget nurture! It’s all advertising. Maybe we should allow advertising to take over those years of parenting that tradition mistakenly informed us were the best way to influence children’s character and choices. Once the clown appears, we’re no better than automatons!
Do we really want to go down this road?
Obesity is not a faceless enemy that shows up one day and beer-batters down your door. It’s the product of choices, genetic predispositions and the types of food available. Yes, there are serious questions to be asked about all of these factors. Fat was once the mark of wealth. Now it’s increasingly the mark of poverty. But it’s an option that’s open to everyone, except for one or two people with the metabolisms of gnats with whom I am no longer on speaking terms.
So this is the sort of fundamentally stupid publicity campaign up with which I will not put. You want kids to stop eating fast food? Teaching them about nutrition will help. Teaching them about exercise will help. But teaching them to take responsibility for their own bodies and their own actions will help most of all.
Not just blaming Ronald.