Amid claims that the clown-themed Ronald McDonald inappropriately markets unhealthy food to children, McDonald’s is facing pressure to kill off its time-honored spokesman. The burger giant is responding by framing the pressure as a free speech issue, with its red-permed mascot emerging as a vigilante on the front lines of America’s next high-profile First Amendment debate.
In recent years the US government has exhibited a trend toward exercising tighter regulation over marketing unhealthy goods. Last year the FTC sued POM Wonderful pomegranate juice for “false and unsubstantiated claims” in its advertising campaign that suggested its antioxidants are good for your heart, and possibly help erectile dysfunction. “Any consumer who sees POM Wonderful products as a silver bullet against disease has been misled,” the FTC said.
Just within the last year governments have forced fast-food restaurants to begin displaying calorie counts on all their menus, and New York recently followed LA in requiring restaurants to undergo health inspections and display letter grades in their windows.
These moves follow a long tradition of regulating (potentially) more dangerous items like alcohol and cigarettes. Who can forget the attention around last year’s Four Loko or this year’s Blast drink peddled by Snoop Dogg, both of which came under heavy scrutiny for allegedly making alcohol appealing to minors? And of course there’s the decades-old struggle with cigarette marketing.
In addition to government regulation, a group called Corporate Accountability International sponsored an ad campaign to pressure Camel cigarettes into retiring its spokesman Joe Camel. I’m still not sure exactly why a cartoon drawing of a camel in a leather coat is more appealing to minors than the real-life cowboy depicted in Marlboro’s ads. The mind of a minor, the thinking seemed to go, is no match for a cartoon, and thus Joe Camel had to go.
Now that same group has trained its cross-hairs on another cartoon purveyor of ill-health: Ronald McDonald. According to Associated Press, CAI believes “McDonald’s is interfering with political efforts to curb marketing unhealthy food to children” by deploying a smiley clown to sell Big Macs.
In a bizarre turn of events, McDonald’s is defending Ronald McDonald as a critical free speech issue—a kind of Julian Assange of the drive-thru world.
Addressing the CAI ad campaign against Ronald and the pressure for McDonald’s to retire the mascot, CEO Jeffrey Skinner said at a shareholders’ meeting: “We believe in the democratic process and our government officials believe in the democratic process. This is about choice, this is about personal, individual right to choose in the society we live in. That’s where we play, that’s where you play, and we have every right to do so.”
Skinner even took the idolatry further, calling Ronald McDonald “an ambassador for good.”
If history is any indication, Ronald will probably come under federal pressure to resign as our trend for health regulations extends inexorably deeper into American life. In an age when marketing is ever-more influential the issue of just where responsible regulation interferes with free speech is a murky one.
Forget the US vs. Julian Assange—he’s not even American. The real First Amendment battle to watch this year is the US vs. Ronald McDonald.