Ronald McDonald and the Perils of Marketing to Youth

Lindsey Weedston Public Relations, TV Advertising

Last week, photos of the new and improved look for the iconic McDonald’s clown were released the the public. The new Ronald McDonald shows off two different, freshly designed outfits that will be used to reintroduce the mascot this summer after a long hiatus. Each of these outfits will be officially presented at the annual McDonald’s worldwide franchisee meeting today.

The move is raising eyebrows across the globe as the news spread across Twitter with the hashtag #RonaldMcDonald. The McDonald’s mascot – a fast food figurehead who dominated ad space on children’s networks for decades – came under fire in the mid 2000’s, when concerns about childhood obesity were hitting their peak. Surgeon General David Satcher had already announced an obesity epidemic in 2001, and people were beginning to focus on how nutritional habits form early. Then, in 2004, Super Size Me hit theaters.

The hit documentary brought the focus of the obesity scare straight onto the foreheads of McDonald’s. It condemned the use of advertising to target children while pointing out the poor nutritional value and high fat and sugar content of many of the common fast food options. The backlash that McDonald’s experienced was soon followed by a not-so-subtle phasing out of the friendly clown and his buddies as the fast food giant attempted to contain the massive PR disaster.

The health food craze has remained strong, and restrictions on certain food additives and even portion sizes have been passed across the nation. McDonald’s switched their focus onto adults, advertising healthier options as well as late hours – more often leaving children out of their ads entirely. Ronald virtually disappeared from the public eye. They began advertising to parents about their healthier kid’s meal options, offering fruit and milk instead of fries and soda.

For some, this shift in focus wasn’t enough. In 2010, Corporate Accountability International suggested that Ronald McDonald retire altogether. Despite this, and growing worries about the moral implications of advertising to children at all, McDonald’s announced plans to bring Ronald back to the TV screen in 2011. Pointing to the Ronald McDonald House, a large charity organization dedicated to children’s health, CEO Jim Skinner declared the mascot to be an ambassador for good.

After years of planning and designing, they’re ready to reveal the rebranded Ronald McDonald to the world.

Health Foods

Whenever you’re advertising to children, you’re taking a risk. You have to be as sensitive as possible, because any hint of foul play will send parents up in arms. The very last group of people you want on your bad side is parents. If you’re selling a children’s product or a product that children could enjoy, there are a few rules you need to burn into your mind before you even start planning a marketing campaign:


#1: Consider If Your Product Could Do Harm

McDonald’s got in trouble because they came into being during a time when the health effects of certain foods were hardly considered. The company could never have predicted the health-conscious culture of today from the 1960’s, but you don’t have the same excuse. Look at your product from every angle. Could it be in any way unsafe? Unhealthy? Could it conceivably promote violence or other bad behavior?

#2: Pick the Right Marketing Angle

You don’t want to be too aggressive when marketing to children. Be very careful about every word you use in any advertisement to avoid giving off an impression of trying to “corrupt” or “brainwash” kids, or lead them astray of any religious, spiritual or political beliefs their parents might hold.

#3: Pay Attention to Health & Safety Trends

Pay very, very close attention. Even if you’re convinced your product and message are clean, things change. You should always be keeping up with the news. It helps to be on social media or an RSS feed for a news website so that you’re getting instant updates. The sooner you know about any safety scares or new studies on the harmful effects of whatever, the sooner you can adjust your message or withdraw any ads targeting children, if necessary.

#4: Consult a Lawyer

It’s important that you know that we are not lawyers. We can give you some advice, but when it comes to extra sensitive topics, you’ll need to speak with an expert in law to know what disclaimers you might need on your ads.

#5: Be Ready to Make Things Right

There are many who would say that McDonald’s made a mistake by not retiring Ronald McDonald immediately following the bad press that resulted from Super Size Me. Plus, if the Twitter community’s response to the news of his return is any indication of the overall population, a lot of people are not happy that he’s coming back. But the fact is that McDonald’s can afford the risk, and you probably can’t. The best way for businesses to avoid PR disasters is to immediately make amends whenever there’s outrage. Apologize in a way that accepts responsibility (avoid “if” statements such as “I’m sorry if you were offended) and bow to their demands. You may not like it or agree with them, but nothing good ever came out of a brand ignoring a scandal or a large crowd of critics. Plus, good responses can turn a potential PR disaster into good press for your company.


Concern about the effects of advertising to children is not new. But for businesses, the rewards can be too great to resist. All the big advertisers know that the best way to achieve brand loyalty is to market to children. It’s simple psychology – brand loyalty occurs when the preference for a brand becomes a part of someone’s identity, and people form their identities most when they’re children. Brands target children simply because it works. However, the moral qualms are enough to make even the biggest businesses hesitate. Is it right to manipulate children like that? No matter how much you try to put responsibility on the parents to steer their kids in the right direction, many people are going to blame you for any negative effects your product causes.

Michelle Obama Let's Move

Photo by Medill DC is licensed under CC BY 2.0

With the health food craze still in full swing and with the First Lady of the United States running a campaign against childhood obesity, McDonald’s is taking a huge risk with the return of Ronald. Whenever you’re launching a marketing or rebranding campaign, you have to be hyper-aware of the political and social climate. If something you’re doing is going to rub raw nerves, it’s a high risk venture. Backlash against McDonald’s is pretty much certain, but only time will tell how bad it will be.