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Should Ronald McDonald get the extra-extra-large, bright red boot? Critics charge that McDonald's (NYSE: MCD ) is using its famous spokesclown to make unhealthy food even more appealing to kids.
At McDonald's annual shareholder meeting, company head Jim Skinner was forced to defend Ronald McDonald, Happy Meals, and other ways that critics contend Mickey D's contributes to childhood obesity by pushing unhealthy food on pint-sized folks.
Corporate Accountability International launched an ad campaign this week asking McDonald's to stop marketing to children. Meanwhile, a group of shareholders led by the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia asked the company to report on children's nutrition, mostly related to childhood obesity and its impacts on the company.
This kind of flak attack is nothing new. Last November, San Francisco's Board of Supervisors voted to block Mickey D's from offering toy giveaways with meals that are laden with calories, sodium, and fat. Overall, the fast food industry at large must contend with criticism about its fare. Yum! Brands (NYSE: YUM ) recently had to defend itself when a lawsuit claimed that its Taco Bell chain's tacos didn't include enough actual meat to be called "beef." The suit was later dropped.
As for marketing perceived vice to children, there's plenty of precedent for big consumer freak-outs -- and even bigger problems for the corporations in question. Reynolds American's (NYSE: RAI ) Joe Camel character was Public Enemy No. 1 for a while, allegedly appealing to kids with a cartoon character before they even took their first puff. In 1997, the Federal Trade Commission even said the campaign violated federal law, challenging it as "an unfair practice." Although R.J. Reynolds fought back, the company ultimately ended up sending Joe Camel into retirement later that year.
At McDonald's meeting, Skinner defended shareholders' rights to bring up such concerns, but also championed customers' right to choose what they feed their kids.
Personally, I agree that the anti-Ronald McDonald campaign is insulting to parents, if not to consumers in general. (And hey, check out that guy who recently consumed his 25,000th Big Mac. He's been at it since 1972, and was he apparently deemed pretty darn healthy in a recent checkup.) Life's less appetizing without freedom of choice, even if some of those choices aren't always healthy.
Critics might consider whether they could do more good with educational campaigns about nutrition and exercise, instead of blaming an imaginary clown for McDonald's popularity. Still, the fate of Joe Camel should remind McDonald's shareholders that such emotional controversies can occasionally force a change in strategy, for good or for ill. What do you think? Let us know if you think Ronald McDonald should go into retirement in the comments box below.