In 1963, President John F. Kennedy was fatally shot in his motorcade in Dallas, Texas. 1963 was also the year The Beatles released their first album, “Please Please Me,” which they recorded in a single day just a couple of months before its debut. And from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., told an audience of a quarter million about a dream that would soon seize many more.
But in the least likely of ways, the least likely of people—a weatherman from Washington, DC, who acted on children’s TV on weekends—changed the fundamental nature of American existence in 1963 with a more subtle magnitude than any of the events that happened that year. This man was Willard Scott, better known as an icon so widely celebrated that he gives even Santa Claus a run for his money, Ronald McDonald.
Ronald was born out of a crucial conclusion that McDonald’s executives made based on Scott’s gig as Bozo the Clown in the popular children’s show, “Bozo’s Circus”: Clowns sell.
McDonald’s made their understanding of this consumer habit painfully clear in their first stab at creating Ronald, who, wearing a paper cup on his nose and tray for a hat, was quite literally the product they were trying to sell. If a Happy Meal could have eyes and a mouth, it would be this early version of Ronald. Sales went up by 30 percent after the mascot was introduced, and it became clear that the key to selling hamburgers was selling the clown-man who looked like he was made up of them.
Once Ronald gained traction, McDonald’s could focus its advertising efforts on children, a market segment that is much more easily manipulated than that of rational adult consumers. Before they reach the age of eight, children cannot discern advertisements from regular programming. They are unable to grasp the concept that companies are trying to market their products. Selling hamburgers to babies is like taking candy from them, and Ronald became McDonald’s means to exploit this phenomenon.
McDonald’s early Ronald-centered ad campaigns trivialized the judgment of parents in the eyes of children and licensed them to make their own dietary decisions—with input from everyone’s favorite hamburger-happy clown, of course! Ronald asked a child in one especially disturbing ad in 1963, “Aren’t hamburgers delicious?” to which the child replied, “Mom told me never to talk to strangers.” But after the clown revealed his identity and made three hamburgers materialize on a tray near his crotch, the child exclaimed in revelation, “You’re no stranger; you really are Ronald McDonald!” and then proceeded to dance with the adult clown in a scene wrought with pedophilic undertones. Ad campaigns like this had a nontrivial effect on the trust children have historically invested in Ronald McDonald. In a study asking children, “Who would you like to take you out for a treat?” the clown was even more popular than their parents.
The scariest part of all this is that we have not outgrown Ronald. When dancing, hamburger-eating children became moms and dads immutably normalized to fast food, Ronald moved his prospects to a new generation of the impressible. He got a makeover, but that’s only because the universally recognized Ronald didn’t have to wear his food in order to sell it anymore. Ronald’s ads were still exclusively targeted at children, and by 1998, 89 percent of kids under the age of eight—the crucial age when they could first start understanding the concept of marketing—ate at McDonalds at least once a month.
If I need to make the case about how problematic that is, then I should note that childhood obesity rates have more than doubled since 1963. Willard Scott got fired as Ronald because he was too fat to play the “extremely active” character, but the laughable irony of this incident is washed out by the reality that McDonald’s didn’t need a person behind Ronald, anyway. By this point, Ronald was not a human as much as a virus—mutilating the American DNA to make it look like our own consumption habits prey on our bodies. His empire thrives on this misapplied First Amendment rhetoric. Ronald McDonald would shove hamburgers down children’s throats if he could get away with it.
And while the country is immunizing itself against the fast food industry, Ronald is growing more infectious. He’s taking selfies at music festivals and hashtagging on Twitter, increasing his relevance among the first generation in a long time that doesn’t (yet) spend its afternoons at the Mickey D’s around the corner. And in his most intelligent move of all, Ronald has leveraged the uncriticizable nature of charity to sell his products. Making the clown the face and namesake of the Ronald McDonald House Charities, McDonald’s takes every opportunity to positively reinforce its branding. An appeal to make McDonald’s retire Ronald has become perceived as an uprising against an ambassador for empathy and active lifestyles (who pumps cholesterol through your arteries on the side).
A McDonalds without Ronald will still perpetuate health problems among our most susceptible populations. And when a critical mass of students and health professionals from Harvard and other schools held a Retire Ronald McDonald rally last Wednesday, I’m sure that’s what they were thinking. But retiring Ronald is a tangible step towards a food system with enfranchised, conscious eaters. It’s a goal Americans can digest—hopefully in the place of burgers and fries.
Shubhankar Chhokra ’18, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Apley Court. His column appears on alternate Fridays.
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