Interview with T.J. Faircloth from Corporate Accountability International

Is it time for Ronald McDonald to hang up his clown shoes? T.J. Faircloth, Research Director for Corporate Accountability International (CAI), thinks that it is. In March, CAI launched a campaign called “Value [the] Meal” to pressure fast food companies to stop aggressively marketing to children, blocking labeling laws, and interfering with the development of healthier public policies. We interview T.J. to find out more about the campaign’s strategy and rationale.

On March 11, Corporate Accountability International launched a new campaign called “Value [the] Meal” to pressure fast food companies to stop aggressively marketing to children, blocking labeling laws, and interfering with the development of healthier public policies. Corporate Accountability International (CAI) has been waging campaigns to end corporate abuses for 30 years. In April, Corporations and Health Watch staff person Marissa Anto interviewed T.J. Faircloth, the Research Director of CAI, about the Value [the] Meal campaign. What follows is an edited version of that interview.

CHW: What inspired the Value [the] Meal Campaign to focus on Ronald McDonald as the target of your campaign against fast food advertising to children?

TJF: Basically our Value [the] Meal Campaign was inspired by rampant corporate abuse of our food system. We looked at the entire food system from seed to plate and we realized that corporations were playing a negative role in our food system by spurring the epidemic of diet-related diseases, specifically the staggering increase of childhood obesity and diet-related illnesses like type II diabetes that really have a profound impact on children’s health all over the world.

Even globally we’ve seen the rates of diet-related illnesses spike. We wanted to start a campaign that would ultimately help reverse this epidemic by targeting the irresponsible actions of transnational corporations who play a major role in spreading this epidemic. Through understanding the various abuses of transnational corporations, we became interested in the marketing of unhealthy foods to children and that’s where we started to hone our attention towards McDonald’s being the industry leader and their brand spokes-character, Ronald McDonald.

CHW: Ronald is both a symbol but also an important part of McDonald’s brand value. What do you think are the pros and cons of using Ronald as the focus on your campaign?

TJF: Ronald, in our opinion, is really the face of a broken food system. For 50 years, there has been this iconic character who has hooked kids on an unhealthy product. There’s no one out there who would disagree that fast food is unhealthy. When we examined the role of the fast food industry in the current epidemic of diet-related diseases, it was clear that the marketing of unhealthy food to children is a key contributor to the problem.

McDonald’s as an industry leader has pioneered an irresponsible business model that depends on hooking kids on an unhealthy product early. When you start to pull apart their brand you find that their key to success is from establishing this lifelong relationship starting with Ronald McDonald and the toys and the happy meal and the playgrounds. This relationship begins at childhood and then continues throughout a person’s lifetime. So the pro for us is that by going after Ronald we were really going after the heart of their business model. We wanted to demonstrate the scope of Ronald’s market reach and more broadly the marketing of unhealthy foods in general. Whether it’s the fast food industry, the soda industry, the candy industry or even packaged foods; we thought that by going after Ronald and going directly after the McDonald’s business model, it would help people to organize around this problem.

Ultimately, the cons are that since McDonald’s has made such an effort to establish this lifelong relationship with its customers, people really have an emotional attachment to this corporate clown. As a result, some people have had a reaction when initially hearing about our campaign [to retire Ronald McDonald]. If they didn’t have a lot of context, they ask, “Why would you go after a beloved children’s character?” So we really have to deconstruct this emotional attachment that many adults still have with this character.

The other potential con is that McDonald’s has been so savvy with their marketing that they have the Ronald McDonald House charities and they have positioned Ronald McDonald as the face of those charities. We honestly commend the work of those charities and in no way have any issue with what the charities do. Our issue is more around the irony that, on the one hand, you have this corporate figure who supposedly helps kids, but he’s also contributing greatly to diet-related diseases among children. So those are two things on the con side that we’ll have to work on throughout the course of this campaign.

CHW: How did you come up with the Ronald McDonald tracking idea? What are its goals?

TJF: We wanted to demonstrate that marketing does have a profound impact on children’s health. Corporations have billions of dollars to spend on marketing and they don’t do it because it doesn’t work; they do it because it does influence the eating habits of children. The initial idea was let’s try to demonstrate the scope of Ronald McDonald’s reach and also the scope of the marketing of unhealthy food and how many children it reaches through various venues.

We wanted to show that marketing is having an effect that most parents and educators and even public health officials don’t really understand. It’s no surprise that nearly every child can recognize this corporate icon.

CHW: What is the Value [the] Meal campaign’s strategy?

TJF: The strategy really depends upon building a public climate here in the U.S. that connects McDonald’s with its impact on public health and that mobilizes people to demand change from the corporation. Our basic strategy is to mobilize tens of thousands of people across the country through the campaign to put pressure on McDonald’s to change its irresponsible marketing practices that target children. In that effort we’ve joined with teachers, parents, public health professionals, community leaders, faith communities, even socially responsible investors and elected officials to call for Ronald’s retirement with the understanding that any meaningful change in their marketing practice would need to start with their iconic children’s character.

CHW: What do you think is the biggest barrier to making fast food restaurants more accountable to the general public and the public’s health?

TJF: We feel like the biggest barrier is the immense power that these industries can wield. It not only allows them to exert control over our food system but it also allows them to manipulate public opinion, nutrition science, and public health policies. McDonald’s is a 32 billion dollar brand. They have really deep pockets, and can spend millions on public relations campaigns and marketing campaigns that can convince the public that their food is not harmful to health. Corporations like McDonald’s also have tremendous political power and they hide behind trade associations, the main one being the National Restaurant Association, which we’ve found has lobbied against legislation and public health policies relating to the fast food industry and the restaurant industry at large.

CHW: Can you describe some of the instances you report where corporations have attempted to influence scientific research concerning the negative effects of fast food?

TJF: A story in the Washington Post in 2004 reported that there are at least 30 McDonald’s restaurants located in hospitals nationwide, including in children’s hospitals in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York, and Cleveland. In some cases, Ronald McDonald is actually in the lobby hailing patients. And there was a study published in Pediatrics that estimated that fast food restaurants can be found in 30% of U.S. hospitals with pediatric residency programs. The reason why that’s a big deal is the study had shown that when fast food is directly located in hospitals, particularly children’s hospitals, the parents of those children who are in the hospital change their opinion about the nutrition value of fast food. So when those parents were asked how they felt about the nutrition quality of fast food, they had higher opinions of fast food when fast food was directly located in hospitals.

We’re also concerned about industry funding of national health groups. The American Academy of Family Physicians has formed their own partnership with McDonald’s. The company is now a sponsor of the AAFP’s Americans in Motion Program. If fast food corporations have these kinds of partnerships with health groups it sends a mixed message to people who might be concerned about the impact of fast food on public health.

Another example would be the American Dietetic Association (ADA). They received funding from many food corporations, such as Coke and Pepsi and even McDonald’s and other fast food companies, and you see these companies show up at the ADA’s annual conference and they have exhibitions, so again these partnerships skew the perception of how healthy fast food is.

One of the other issues we’re interested in is the Health Advisory Boards/Health Advisory Councils that many fast food companies have. McDonald’s has a global advisory council that has several health officials and doctors who advise them on nutrition and health. For us, that really sends mixed messages to people that fast food is healthier than it is.

And the last thing we keep an eye on is the direct funding of nutrition science from fast food. For example, a couple years ago the Scripps Research Institute and McDonald’s announced a collaboration regarding research and an educational initiative to drive progress towards a solution to childhood obesity and type II diabetes. McDonald’s donated $2 million to address these issues facing America’s children. If McDonald’s just changed some of their practices, they’d have a tremendous impact on type II diabetes and childhood obesity. It’s not really necessary for them to fund science. We know Scripps will be unlikely to come out with research that is negative towards the fast food industry because of that.

CHW: Can you discuss your findings from your most recent report on fast food advertising to children?

TJF: There were three main findings. First, we confirmed that corporate icons, children’s characters, and targeted fast food marketing to children have a profound negative impact on children’s health. Children do not understand the persuasive intent of brand marketing and they quickly develop brand loyalty that carries over into adulthood. For example, a 2007 study from Stanford University found that preschool children reported that food in McDonald’s wrappers tasted better than identical food wrapped in plain wrappers, suggesting that branding can even trump sensory input. In addition, marketing fast food to children really undermines parental authority by tapping into what the industry calls “pester power” where kids relentlessly pester parents to purchase unhealthy products, so even the most diligent parents can eventually succumb to this pressure in order to appease their children.

Second, we discovered, just as McDonald’s says, Ronald McDonald is literally everywhere. We had hundreds of members submit details of all the venues, locations, and events that Ronald frequents. We know he’s in schools, in educational materials, libraries; we saw him at the Olympics and other sporting events that appeal to children, parades like the Macy’s Day parade, children’s museums, in and around children’s hospitals, and on TV and the internet. Basically, almost anywhere where children tend to gather. So really just understanding the scope of Ronald’s reach was another major finding.

The last important finding was based on a national poll we conducted with Lake Research Partners that provided insight into McDonald’s use of Ronald McDonald. One question was, “What sort of impression do Americans have of Ronald McDonald?” We found that 65% of Americans actually have a favorable impression of Ronald McDonald. Not surprisingly, directly connected to that, about 65% of Americans actually have a favorable opinion of McDonald’s. But though the clown is well liked, we still found that a majority, 52% of Americans, favored stopping corporations from using cartoons and other children’s characters from selling harmful products to children. So that was one revelation. Even among those who have a favorable impression of Ronald McDonald, about half of those, 46%, actually support retiring Ronald. Looking more closely at the demographics, among parents who have children under the age of 18 and have favorable impression of Ronald and the McDonald’s Corporation, half support Ronald’s exit to the nearest retirement home. It was interesting to see that despite this widespread support for both the corporation and Ronald and the emotional attachment to the character, you still have a pretty broad base support for getting rid of him.

CHW: What role can President Obama or the First Lady and her Childhood Obesity Campaign have in improving fast food practices?

TJF: There’s a Voluntary Corporate Initiative housed under the Better Business Bureau called the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative in which companies, including a dozen or so fast food companies, have now made these pledges to reduce the marketing of unhealthy food to children under 12. However, this voluntary initiative has been in effect for two years and several reports show that this it is ineffective, having no impact on the quality of food that these companies are marketing to children. So it’s clear that voluntary agreements with the industry will not work.

So the President’s or Michelle Obama’s initiatives requesting that the industry take voluntary action it just won’t be effective. The President should work to quickly implement the national menu labeling legislation that was part of health care reform. This would be a mandatory regulation under health care reform that would require, similar to what has happened in New York City, that all chain restaurants post calories on their menu boards. This would give customers the information they need to make more informed decisions. That would be one immediate thing the President could do, because it’s looking like it would take 2-3 years for this legislation’s implementation.

The President could also restore the Federal Trade Commission’s authority to regulate food marketing to children. There’s a joint interagency Working Group on Food Marketing to Children that includes representatives from the Federal Trade Commission, Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and U.S. Department of Agriculture – that produced and presented in December a set of recommended nutritional standards for foods marketed to children. Those recommendations were supposed to be finalized in February, but they haven’t been finalized yet. They appear on the surface to be strong, so the President should work to have the guidelines finalized and then to make them into mandatory regulations.

CHW: Your campaign focuses on one company, the biggest one. What do you think of broader efforts to ban all unhealthy food advertising to children? I heard that Dennis Kucinich proposed legislation to ban tax deductions on advertising unhealthy food to children, so what do you think of efforts like that?

TJF: We totally agree with those efforts. As I’ve mentioned, when you look at this issue, it’s not just the fast food industry. I think a lot of people are interested in the fast food industry and agree that really any fast food is inherently unhealthy. That is different from packaged food products, which are sort of a mixed bag. When you think about the junk food industry, you’re really talking about the soda industry, the confectionery candy industry, packaged foods, and then fast food. We’re organizing around fast food but the problem is really widespread and all those other pieces of the junk food industry market to children and have a profound impact on their health. I think that fast food advertising may be more visible and the scope may be larger. But we totally support those efforts to really ban the marketing of all unhealthy marketing to children whether it’s fast food, soda, candy, or packaged foods.

CHW: Are there any fast food chains that are doing the right things? If so what are they doing that can serve as models for the rest of the industry?

TJF: There are some chains working to improve their supply chain, reducing pesticide use, increasing organics, and increasing local acquisition of food. There are many that are providing healthy options, which is different from healthier options. We’ve seen some movement among the bigger fast food chains that provide healthier children’s meals or salads that still have a ton of calories (dressings, condiments). But there are some chains that actually provide some healthy options. There are some chains that, even before the regulation, labeled nutrition information prominently and made that information available prior to the sale. McDonald’s will say that they’ve provided that information for many years now but it’s often after the products are sold. For example, customers can see calorie on the tray liners, after they’ve purchased the products. There are some smaller chains that have actually coordinated with local public health officials to address diet-related diseases in the communities they operate in. That seems like a very good step since public health concerns may differ from community to community. Some communities may be having a huge issue with hypertension and may need to reduce salt so restaurants need to take steps to reformulate salt content, that sort of thing.

CHW: What can academics, activists, and the average person do to compel fast food companies to improve the quality of their food?

TJF: We certainly respect the work that Corporations and Health Watch and the City University of New York have been doing to expose the irresponsible activities of the food industry that are greatly contributing to the epidemic of diet-related diseases and childhood obesity. Those academics and activists should continue to work on that front to expose the irresponsible corporate activities that are having negative health outcomes. The best first step for the average person to take is to get involved: to join our Value [the] Meal campaign to pressure McDonald’s and other fast food chains to stop marketing to children, and specifically regarding McDonald’s, to retire Ronald McDonald. Anyone can engage with the campaign by signing Ronald’s retirement card and joining our organizing effort. We’re making great progress in pressuring McDonald’s with exciting and compelling actions designed to engage the average person in the effort to protect children’s health.

For more on McDonald’s and the Value [the] Meal Campaign, see:

Prior CHW reports on McDonald’s: