Why is the Federal Government Giving its Stamp of Approval to Ronald McDonald?

This statement was released today by Corporate Accountability International in response to the hearing held this morning in Congress on food marketing to children. See my previous article for more context.

Why is the Federal Government Giving its Stamp of Approval to Ronald McDonald?

By Sara Deon, Value [the] Meal campaign director, Corporate Accountability International

Bowing to industry pressure, the Federal Trade Commission announced today that its final proposed voluntary guidelines to protect children from predatory marketing would not require food corporations to remove “brand equity characters from food products that don’t meet nutrition guidelines.”

The FTC’s decision is extremely disappointing, and prioritizes the interests of corporations such as McDonald’s and PepsiCo over kids’ health.

More specifically, the federal government is sending the message that powerful child-friendly icons such as Ronald McDonald are A-OK, regardless of the lifelong health consequences of getting kids hooked on a steady diet of cheeseburgers, fries, and Coke.

The FTC’s testimony today was startling and disturbing. While the agency says such characters are “appealing to children,” they also appeal “to a broader audience and are inextricably linked to the food’s brand identity.”

A “broader audience?” Who exactly are characters such as Toucan Sam, Tony the Tiger, and especially Ronald McDonald designed to appeal to other than children? The FTC is absolutely correct that such characters are inextricably linked to the brand’s identity, and that is exactly the point.

McDonald’s deploys its ubiquitous mascot in myriad ways—in schools, community events—where ever children congregate—for the sole purpose of building brand loyalty from a very young age. And often at these appearances, there’s not a Happy Meal in sight. Because McDonald’s knows the key to getting kids to nag their parents to visit McDonald’s is getting vulnerable children to fall in love with Ronald first, and Chicken McNuggets second.

If the federal government backs off setting some minimal guidelines for how these characters can be utilized, it would set a dangerous precedent, potentially even undermining state and local policy along with other legal actions to stop this predatory marketing practice.

Obviously the Obama Administration is under tremendous political pressure from the food industry, in addition to the powerful advertising industry lobby. But the entire process of the Interagency Working Group was compromised early on because government officials agreed with the food corporations that voluntary, self-regulation is a viable solution to junk food marketing to kids.

Decades of experience combined with ample scientific research, not to mention common sense, tells us that relying on the food industry to police itself is futile. Having federal agencies provide guidance to the food industry to improve their own voluntary standards was wishful thinking at best. In the process of trying to gain food industry cooperation, the Federal Trade Commission seems to have forgotten its own motto: “Protecting America’s Consumers.” You would hope that kids would be at the top of the list for FTC protection.

Federal officials should stop hiding behind free speech rhetoric, pretending that voluntary self-regulation will work, and instead roll up their sleeves and get to work drafting legally feasible safeguards against predatory junk food marketing to children. It’s the best solution we have.

4 Responses to “Why is the Federal Government Giving its Stamp of Approval to Ronald McDonald?”

  1. Tina says:

    I agree with you but take note of your statement, “Federal officials should stop hiding behind free speech rhetoric, pretending that voluntary self-regulation will work, and instead roll up their sleeves and get to work drafting legally feasible safeguards against predatory junk food marketing to children. It’s the best solution we have.”
    The best solution is not to go to McDonalds or any other business you don’t approve of. There is nothing that says a child (or adult) must have fast food. And why doesn’t that parent choose the healthier item on the menu? Because the child will have a fit? The tail shouldn’t be wagging the dog and the childs fit shouldn’t determine the parents decision. I just don’t get why we have to regulate everything. Make your informed decision on what’s the best food to eat and eat it. Don’t eat the garbage. Why is that so hard?
    I wish large corps played fair and thought about people instead of the bottom line but nothing says we HAVE to buy their products, it’s our choice. You will never legislate morality and you’ll never legislate common sense.
    I don’t mean to argue or belittle the hard work you do, there is a place for it. But if people simply don’t buy it, pretty soon, won’t they stop selling it?
    Or am I just wishin’ on a star?

    • Michele says:

      Tina,

      Of course “just saying no” is one option, but why is it the only one? The fact that parents can say no does not change the fact that what McDonald’s is doing is wrong. People can “just not speed” but we have speed limits to encourage them. How is this any different?

      Michele

  2. Michele Hays says:

    There’s one basic issue here: effectively, what we really want is for large corporations to make less money – because even if they sold healthy calories at the rate that they’re selling unhealthy calories, kids’ health would be negatively impacted. When the US Govt. is asking for these changes, they need to be aware of what they are asking, and expect a fight.

    Tina, you’re implying that all consumers understand or have the level of education needed to refuse unhealthy foods or resist corporate marketing. Let’s put this into perspective: An average of 13 hours (or 780 minutes) per year is spent on nutrition education in our public schools, out of 1,003 total hours per year*. Contrasting that, an FTC BE TV Study showed that in 2004, children on average were exposed to 2,202 minutes of food advertising, and teens 2,193 minutes** (this is prior to the widespread use of marketing in mobile phone “apps”.)

    Now, keep in mind that the food industry pays huge sums of money to make the food advertising more appealing than the educational stuff…AND many nutrition education programs in schools are paid for by food trade associations – and thus function as marketing, anyway. Do you see how the deck is stacked in the food industry’s favor?

    The bottom line: the food industry has no incentive to stop what they’re doing, despite the severe social consequences. The industry has set up the average American to fail when it comes to diet, because it’s in their best financial interest. I don’t see a free-market answer to this dilemma.

    What I do think: a simpler answer than regulating marketing is requiring dollar-for-dollar matching of child advertising/marketing monies to be donated to independent education programs earmarked for the areas where the marketing applies (e.g. food marketing to nutrition education, consumerism to consumer education.)

    I’m also curious why the health insurance lobby doesn’t get involved on the other side of this problem: isn’t it in their best interest to have healthier consumers?

    * Source: http://nces.ed.gov
    ** Source:http://www.ftc.gov/os/2008/07/P064504foodmktingreportappendices.pdf

  3. Tina says:

    Hmm I hear what you are saying and will ponder this a bit. I don’t understand the health insurance companies not being involved either…
    There is a fine line I still think between being my brothers keeper and government interference.
    Also want to say thanks for the bit if debate we just had. I am learning along the way :)
    Have a good weekend!

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