Even with concerns about childhood obesity and related health conditions reaching new heights, fast food mascot Ronald McDonald remains the most recognizable icon to children around the world—second only to Santa Claus. But the clown is at a crossroads.

Food blogger David Koeppel recently asked whether Ronald is a “beloved corporate mascot” or a “sinister huckster who gets kids hooked on junk food.” The evidence indicates he is both. And because it’s impossible to separate the former from the latter, it may be he should be neither.

McDonald’s makes its trademark clown ubiquitous and is proud of it. An animated sequence on the corporation’s homepage begins with the caption, “He’s here. He’s there. Man, the guy’s everywhere.” He’s on Saturday morning television ads. He’s on Happy Meal boxes. He’s featured in internet games.

And when we at Corporate Accountability International launched WheresRonald.org to gauge whether or how Ronald was hooking kids on food high in salt, fat and sugar, the clown turned up in a wide range of places in person. Ronald appeared at elementary schools to promote physical activity, at libraries to promote reading, and children’s fairs to teach kids about bullying.

Add in the Ronald McDonald House Charities and it’s hard to see the evil in this icon.

Yet, what if we consider him in the context of a less “beloved” character—one retired more than a decade ago: Joe Camel. What if Joe Camel had visited schools encouraging kids not to smoke? Would parents have found that acceptable, let alone sincere? I doubt it.

When the face of a corporation, and an industry, responsible for driving an epidemic of diet-related disease wants to serve as a “health ambassador” to public schools, how is that different?

As McDonald’s executive R.J. Milano put it in 1998, the corporation wants, “to own every kid transaction out there.” It has also boasted about promotions targeted at kids as young as two.

Ronald remains at the center of these promotions, which are also aided by the more than 8,000 playgrounds McDonald’s operates around the country.

Still CEO James Skinner insists that, “Ronald has never sold food to kids in the history of his existence.”

Right. Maybe he believes in Santa Claus too! Why make such an outlandish claim?

Well, for one it’s better for sales when the clown’s benevolent, philanthropic image is separated from the crass, public relations machine that ringleads his appearances.

McDonald’s executives know that barraging children with the clown’s images from a very young age creates powerful brand identifications that can last a lifetime. Until the age of about eight, children are generally unable to understand that marketing is an attempt to sell them a product. And one 30-second commercial can influence the brand preferences of children as young as two.

McDonald’s also takes full advantage of the “pester effect.” They know that even the most responsible and strong-willed parents will cave to their children’s nagging if it is persistent enough.

The company’s most problematic efforts that the Where’s Ronald hunt found bypass parents entirely. You’d imagine, for example, there are ways children could learn to read, lead healthy lifestyles, and get along with their classmates without being marketed fast food.

It begs a similar question of Ronald McDonald charities. Does an icon so associated with the spike in health problems related to diet have a place in caring for sick kids? Aren’t there other clowns or mascots who could bring similar cheer, without the mixed messages?

Ronald McDonald’s identity crisis isn’t new. That’s why the corporation is increasingly trying to associate him with “healthier choices” on its kids’ menu. But the fact is that a standard Happy Meal is still a hamburger or chicken “McNuggets,” fries, and a soda. The “healthier” side offering is a pile of apples with a sugary caramel dipping sauce. Chocolate milk is an alternative beverage.

Instead of endeavoring to reinvent Ronald, it’s time McDonald’s did some corporate soul-searching, asking itself hard questions about the dubious practice of using a clown to promote both junk food and its charities.

Meanwhile, parents can pose these same questions to the schools, hospitals, and libraries where Ronald all too often appears.

Stacey Folsom is Corporate Accountability International’s national spokesperson. Corporate Accountability International has been waging winning campaigns to challenge corporate abuse for more than 30 years. www.StopCorporateAbuse.org.

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