I just saw this article in today’s WSJ about an advocacy group pressuring McDonald’s into retiring Ronald McDonald. Here’s the ad. 



Whenever I see an ad like this, however well-intentioned, I break out in hives. First, a personal note: as a father, I would never bring my two year old to a McDonald’s unless we were stuck on an interstate in the middle of nowhere, the gas gauge was on E, the kid was screaming and a sign said “Next Rest Stop: 200 miles.” I would order whatever grilled chicken product they offer and a bottle of water and be done with it. When I want fast , I’m a pizza guy, not a burger and fries guy. That’s me.

But here’s the larger issue: while I would probably agree with this advocacy group’s point of view, that McDonald’s sells fatty, salty, high caloric food not just to kids but to everyone, is that really a surprise? If you put a Big Mac and French Fries on one plate and a green salad topped with 6 oz of grilled fish on another plate, I have to think the average American would be able to pick the healthier choice. And that’s why I don’t eat at McDonald’s. As a consumer, I have the power to make choices. Ronald McDonald can come to my house and do my laundry, and I’m still not eating there. (Parallel story: my daughter screams “Dora!” when she sees Dora the Explorer branded yogurt in the supermarket, but only after I read the label to see if there is artificial color, excessive sugar, any other nastiness in the container, do I make the choice of buying it or buying another brand.) See how that works? Consumers using their brains to make choices. Pretty easy, right?

Not really, because rarely do we give consumers enough credit, and at the same time, rarely do we hold consumers responsible. The questions at hand are: Does McDonald’s have a right to market and promote its products to kids? Does Dora have the right to sell yogurt? Are consumers so helpless that we’re blaming the clown for our problems?

The answer to all three is yes. Today, are blaming the clown. And I have two problems with this. First, let’s say McDonald’s advertising goes away tomorrow. Then what? Will kids everywhere be overtaken with happiness and run outside and invade our nation’s parks, spending long hours climbing trees and playing ball? Will their parents rush to supermarkets and load up on fresh produce and start cooking with their children? Will we all turn off our TVs are start reading the classics? None of this will happen because this is not what we have become. What we have become is sedentary society with a failing food culture that makes questionable consumer choices in many aspects of life, not just about food. But what’s the alternative? Do we want to point to one type of food and say “that’s bad” but other products that may be “bad” for different reasons escape scrutiny? Which leads to my second problem: where does it end? If we successfully petition McDonald’s, do we go after soda next? Those fabulous Coke ads teaching the world how to sing? Really? They have to go, too? Is soda “bad?” How about commercials for dieting? Is a shake for breakfast and a shake for lunch really good for anyone? Why not ban broadcast TV during daytime hours, when kids are most likely to watch? Wouldn’t it be better if they were playing or reading and not watching TV? Following this logic, let’s take total responsibility from the adults and then all our problems will go away.

Okay, enough sarcasm. Here’s a solution. To the folks at the Corporate Accountability International, I love your passion. And I would probably agree with your mission. I just think going after McDonald’s is the wrong target because the people who agree with you (like me) aren’t eating there anyway. If I were your marketing partner, I would use your dollars another way. Just thinking out loud, here’s the first idea I have: if such a TV show doesn’t already exist, I would approach Nickelodeon or another kids channel and produce a cooking show for kids. Fight food with food, I say. Hosted by an experienced home cook, I would fill the studio with different 7, 8, 9 year olds in every episode, and get them cooking. Let them turn on the fire, let them make mistakes, let them have fun, let them make simple, delicious food. Take them to a supermarket and let them pick out produce. This way, instead of saying what’s bad, kids would learn that individual ingredients—butter, salt, olive oil, even burgers—are good. What else would I do? Instead of targeting , I would petition schools and educators to introduce “Cooking Ed” into their curriculum as early as 1st grade and teach it through high school. As important as math, science, history and the arts, Cooking Ed would be one of the most important skills for turning kids into healthy, functioning young adults. There’s no reason a 10 year old can’t crack an egg in a skillet and make herself a quick breakfast before school. Maybe, just maybe, children wouldn’t be going to McDonald’s so frequently if they knew how fulfilling it is to cook, and they wouldn’t be going there if they didn’t leave the house hungry. So let’s empower them instead of protecting them. I would consider creating more impactful ads. (I’m assuming there’s a social media component to your campaign; if not, ditch the print and go digital.) Instead of showing a smiling doctor and a cute baby, I’d visualize the problem. Show a fat baby holding a Big Mac the size of its head, sitting in front of a TV with a clicker in one hand and a Game Boy in the other. Okay, that may be a great idea, but I’m thinking as I’m writing and at least you’d be showing the problem instead of talking about the problem. (Pictures sell.) Finally, I would assign blame where blame belongs, in the household, on the adults who take their kids to fast food places and are failing to bring their kids into the kitchen and teach them about the goodness of food.

Marketing is a powerful tool that drives consumer behavior. We all know that. If that’s one takeaway of this advocacy ad, then those of us in this business should thank them for reminding us of our responsibility. If any agency thinks it is marketing a bad product or misrepresenting consumers, they should resign the account. But at the same time, if kids, teenagers and adults are motivated to eat at McDonald’s in part because of their creative marketing, banning ads isn’t the answer. We can’t blame a clown for loading up kids with saturated fat and sodium. I’m not sure what else can be said other than the consumer, as always, is in charge. If corporate responsibility matters to you, then spend your dollars that way. I love OXO and buy all their products, as they have been a leader through innovation and design. Costco certainly leads by example; how many people know the CEO of Costco keeps his base salary in the neighborhood of $400,000, when his peers are making millions? I’m not a big box shopper, but when I do, I try to go there. How about American Apparel’s refusal to outsource its manufacturing overseas, and instead creating jobs in America? Shouldn’t we all buy our t-shirts there? And if tomorrow McDonald’s announces they are reformulating their entire menu and every item was as healthy as lettuce, they would get my dollar, too. But if they continue to develop games and promotions and Happy Meals that other consumers go crazy for, that’s great, too.

At the end of everything, it comes back to the home. To the adults. To the dinner table. Whether it’s food choices, how many books are in the home, doing homework together, whether families cook together or not, it’s all about the home. I don’t prefer fast food because I grew up in a house where the kitchen was the center of the home, and cooking and eating and cleaning together was just how it was. I feel bad for others who didn’t have the advantage of growing up in such a house, but I’m not going to blame McDonald’s for filling their hunger.

Let’s stop blaming the clown. Instead, launch ideas that make the clown irrelevant.

Photo Credit: NickMillerUK via Flickr