Why is the Federal Government Giving its Stamp of Approval to Ronald McDonald?

Bowing to industry pressure, the Federal Trade Commission announced that its final proposed voluntary guidelines to protect children from predatory marketing would not require food corporations to remove “brand equity characters from food products that don’t meet nutrition guidelines.”

The FTC’s decision is extremely disappointing, and prioritizes the interests of corporations such as McDonald’s and PepsiCo over kids’ health.

More specifically, the federal government is sending the message that powerful child-friendly icons such as Ronald McDonald are A-OK, regardless of the lifelong health consequences of getting kids hooked on a steady diet of cheeseburgers, fries, and Coke.The FTC’s testimony was startling and disturbing. While the agency says such characters are “appealing to children,” they also appeal “to a broader audience and are inextricably linked to the food’s brand identity.”A “broader audience?” Who exactly are characters such as Toucan Sam, Tony the Tiger, and especially Ronald McDonald designed to appeal to other than children? The FTC is absolutely correct that such characters are inextricably linked to the brand’s identity, and that is exactly the point.

McDonald’s deploys its ubiquitous mascot in myriad ways—in schools, community events—wherever children congregate—for the sole purpose of building brand loyalty from a very young age. And often at these appearances, there’s not a Happy Meal in sight. Because McDonald’s knows the key to getting kids to nag their parents to visit McDonald’s is getting vulnerable children to fall in love with Ronald first, and Chicken McNuggets second.

If the federal government backs off setting some minimal guidelines for how these characters can be utilized, it would set a dangerous precedent, potentially even undermining state and local policy along with other legal actions to stop this predatory marketing practice.

Obviously the Obama Administration is under tremendous political pressure from the food industry, in addition to the powerful advertising industry lobby. But the entire process of the Interagency Working Group was compromised early on because government officials agreed with the food corporations that voluntary, self-regulation is a viable solution to junk food marketing to kids.

Decades of experience combined with ample scientific research, not to mention common sense, tells us that relying on the food industry to police itself is futile. Having federal agencies provide guidance to the food industry to improve their own voluntary standards was wishful thinking at best. In the process of trying to gain food industry cooperation, the Federal Trade Commission seems to have forgotten its own motto: “Protecting America’s Consumers.” You would hope that kids would be at the top of the list for FTC protection.

Federal officials should stop hiding behind free speech rhetoric, pretending that voluntary self-regulation will work, and instead roll up their sleeves and get to work drafting legally feasible safeguards against predatory junk food marketing to children. It’s the best solution we have.


Image Credit:

Kcolwell via Flickr