Closing the Doors on McDonaldland?

The new Senate Appropriation’s Bill contains language requiring the formation of a Working Group investigating how food is marketed to children (defined as anyone under 18). This working group only has until July 15 to report on their findings, but some think that this is the beginning of the end for child-centric food advertising. Some people are comparing this to the late-90s ending of the “Old Joe” Camel advertising regime, but I don’t think that’s really a fair comparison. It’s not yet illegal to sell hamburgers to children, after all.

I’m not going to spend any time defending Ronald McDonald. I grew up during a very active time in the McDonaldland Saga, and I suspect my general impression that it’s not that bad anymore stems more from the fact that I don’t follow things related to that target demographic than any actual reality.

The argument for retiring Ronald McDonald is pretty straight-forward. The ad campaign is designed to cause children to nag their parents to visit the McDonald’s, but also to make it seem that, by saying no, the parent is, in some way, showing that they don’t love their child. The figures in the report suggest that 79% of respondents to their poll, want Ronald to be retired, many of them strongly favoring the idea.

I am not a parent, and don’t foresee myself becoming one for several more years. I do have plenty experience around small children, from cousins in the past, to now the children of friends and family. It’s not the same, admittedly. If I say no to a child, I usually don’t have to spend the rest of the day, week, month, or year around them nearly all the time. It can be seen to afford me the opportunity to be the jerk, without having to deal with the long-term consequences.

However, while I understand that saying ‘no’ against the force of the marketing behemoth being aimed toward children is exhausting, and certainly that conceding from time to time isn’t the end of the world, I’m not sure I’m convinced that government intervention here is necessary, or even desirable. Do I think the ‘free speech’ defense of such child-focused advertising is appropriate? Not really, but I don’t necessarily see it as being invalid.

Advertising is only going to become more insidious. Product placement is becoming more and more common. Hell, have you watched an episode of Chuck lately? Between all the trips to Subway, and the Windows logo prominently on practically every piece of computer hardware on the show…

And I know for the ‘tweens’ things are just as bad. How many young girls want some new piece of clothing because Hannah Montana is wearing it? How long until we start to see her and her friends meeting regularly at McDonald’s to chat over a cheeseburger and fries?

At the end of the day, retiring Ronald McDonald and ad-icons like him are only going to drive those advertising dollars to different locations, and probably places where it’ll be even harder to do anything about. Saying no to a child isn’t going to get any easier, and certainly there is necessity to use saying ‘no’ as a learning opportunity, or to occasionally acquiesce. What’s the other option? Lock your kids away from all media that you haven’t reviewed first? Not likely.