Kristina Lewis, MD, MPH, SM
Despite a good run of over 50 years in the business, McDonald’s decided late in 2016 that the services of its friendly, funny clown, Ronald McDonald, were no longer required. The clown, it seems, had become a threat to public health. Why? Not because he was pushing trans fats on toddlers, selling sodas to six-year-olds, and hawking hamburgers to high-schoolers. Rather, this sudden call to action by McDonald’s execs was out of grave concern that Ronald might be.......scaring people (Gasp!!) After a series of creepy clown sightings across the United States last fall, it was felt that Ronald’s continued presence as a McDonald’s ambassador might be upsetting to children.
The irony of this decision, of course, is that good ol’ Ronnie has done far more damage to American children over the years by getting them hooked on unhealthful, calorie-dense foods and beverages than he has by conjuring up images of scary clowns from a bad horror flick. With his goofy charm and cadre of fuzzy buddies, Ronald has been a key part of the food industry’s drive to market junk directly to children, who, it turns out, are very susceptible to such tactics. This phenomenon is plainly evident if you spend 30 minutes watching cartoons with your child on a Saturday morning, then take him/her on a tour of the grocery store. In fact, a large body of research suggests a clear link between exposure to food advertising and the preferences and eating behaviors of children. Public health advocates have been trying for well over a decade to implement policies that limit the ability of companies to market potentially harmful products directly to young children. This has taken the form of legislation restricting food advertising to kids under 16 in the UK, as well as attempts in a number of countries (including the US) to engage food industry leaders in voluntary pledges to change the way they market their products. Whether or not these pledges have translated into meaningful changes in marketing by food industry players is an area of concern.
A 2016 World Health Organization update on food marketing restrictions concluded that, despite existing resources for technical and policy guidance from the United Nations, there had not yet been a Member State that “implemented comprehensive legislation or enforced mandatory regulations to prohibit the marketing of unhealthy food and beverage products to young people”. Furthermore, the update indicated that the food industry, despite pledges to the contrary, had made little progress on their own in restricting marketing of unhealthful products to young children.
This brings us back to Ronald the clown, now out of a job, but for the wrong reason. If a direct appeal to companies on the ethics of marketing junk to children has been unsuccessful, then perhaps Ronald’s fate can teach us a lesson. Perhaps we should instead be partnering with the entertainment industry to pump out more films about creepy clowns, or better yet – deadly diabetes, horrific heart disease, and the other true terrors that keep most of us medical types up at night.