Ronald's not the reason why...

Though I applaud the physicians of America for going after the obesity epidemic (according to the Centers for Disease Control, 17% of children and adolescents are obese), lining up Ronald McDonald in their sights isn't exactly the right target.

More than 500 physicians have signed a letter to McDonalds, asking the corporation to retire Ronald. As reported in the WSJ, the letter says:
"The letter, slated to run in the form of full-page ads in six metropolitan newspapers around the country on Wednesday, acknowledges that 'the contributors to today's (health) epidemic are manifold and a broad societal response is required. But marketing can no longer be ignored as a significant part of this massive problem.'"
(It's looking more and more like marketing is the answer AND the problem!)

I actually like McDonalds. But I like McDonalds largely because we use it as a rare treat, not as a frequent source for sustenance.

I also acknowledge that marketing is a big reason why McDonalds is successful. Long before they learned how to read, my children recognized the Golden Arches as the place for a burger and a toy. The marketers at Micky D's are really very good at what they do - they long ago recognized their brand identity as a place for predictable and affordable family meals - and they've used marketing to continually reinforce that brand identity and reach new customers throughout the years. Though I've never been to B-school, I'll bet Mickey D's provides an excellent case study for aspiring marketers.

But to say that McDonalds' marketing department is a "significant part" of the massive problem of obesity is wrong. McDonalds' marketers do not force us at gunpoint to gulp down multiple Big Macs. McDonalds is known to offer a number of high calorie meal options - and their calorie counts are now on the back of every place mat placed on every tray used when dining in at McDonalds. If you're not aware that burgers and fries eaten in excess are not good for you, then you've been living under a rock.

It's the consumer who chooses to buy the burger - and the fries - and the full-of-sugar soda. And it's parents who are choosing to take the family to fast food restaurants all too frequently. They're the ones responsible for the food their children eat, not McDonalds.

To blame "marketing" scapegoats a corporation for choices made by individuals. And that's the real problem with so many of our issues today in America. It's always someone else's fault.


Sarah said…
This is a little disappointing. I thought when you said marketing was the problem AND the solution you were going to propose something like, perhaps, the very innovative use of social marketing that has greatly improved hygiene (and consequently reduced childhood mortality) in some countries.

To admit the power of marketing- and then just fall back on the old 'people are responsible for their own choices' saw seems to me kind of a cop out. Marketers today are extraordinarily savvy about psychological triggers and influencers. Why shouldn't at least some of this knowledge be put into campaigns aimed at something more important than improving the already soaring profits of some of our wealthiest companies? Why not use it to improve public health-- or even awareness of the kinds of things that often influence us without our noticing them and how advertising does what it does?

When I was in Junior High back in the long-gone world of the 60's our obligatory civics class, taught by one of the best teachers I've ever had, there was a unit on propaganda and how to recognize it. I've never forgotten it, and I'm sure it's one of the reasons I grew up to be someone who searches out and compares different sources of information and not someone easily swayed by a good, emotionally satisfying sound-bite.

In a democracy where we are all responsible for deciding the direction of the country, shouldn't we be teaching at least some basic information on how to sort the wheat from the chaff?

FULL DISCLOSURE: I do not work for McDonalds.

And I do have my issues with Ronald, dating back to when my son's school brought Ronald in as the spokesperson for the "Character Counts" campaign. Just know that I was quick to communicate my thoughts on that to the principal, and that I was not a fan.

However, I did not blame McDonalds in that case. I blamed the educators. And as a parent, I felt it was my responsibility to let them know that letting a marketing tool represent "character" was a deeply misguided lesson.

Ronald has not been invited back to my school since, which is as it should be.

If you look at the link I included with the "answer AND problem" section, you'll see I'm a little skeptical of the idea of "marketing benevolence as brilliantly as Budweiser."

Marketing is marketing - it's the department within a corporation responsible for communicating the product's attributes and benefits to their audience. They're not paid to train consumers on the tricks of their trade. They're paid to implement the tricks of their trade.

It's our job as consumers to sift through the messages and figure out what's best for us. I believe that we are responsible for our actions.

And I believe that when docs blame marketing for obesity, they may also want to look into how THEY treat obesity. People are not born obese. It's something that takes time to develop. Do docs intervene prior to the point at which a patient is obese? Hmmm. Probably not. There's not a billable box for obesity-intervention that they can send off to insurance companies for reimbursement.

Instead of writing a letter to the marketers at McDonalds, those physicians should have written a letter to consumers, informing consumers of the flaws of a Micky D's diet. They should have used that ad money to peel back the curtain on the operations of the marketing team.

When you talk about corporate responsibility, I wonder if you are aware of the contributions McDonalds makes through its Ronald McDonald House charity? ( They provide accommodations for families with children who are hospitalized with serious illnesses.

They've only started advertising this charitable organization in recent years.

I've known several families (which is too many!) who've needed the services of Ronald McDonald House while their child was undergoing medical treatment at a hospital. These families remain extremely grateful to the organization for the services they've provided at an extremely difficult time in their lives.

I think you've provided the answer for how to counter the influence and power of marketing - you learned an invaluable lesson about the power of propaganda in school. I dearly hope schools are teaching that same kind of lesson today - it's needed even more. And as a parent, I am every day working with my children to help them sift through marketing to find the facts.

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