You may not have noticed,* but the last few years of McDonald’s commercials have been conspicuously free of Ronald McDonald, the clown so brightly colored that only a child‘s retinas are innocent enough to look at him. It turns out that L. Ron McDonald has been the object of an ongoing campaign of protest from various height/weight-appropriate killjoys, who argue that he is designed to sell unhealthy food directly to children. That is obviously true. When was the last time you saw a clown convince an adult of anything, much less what to put in his mouth? Whereas that works on kids all the time. With their McCafe marketing campaign and their new emphasis on salads, apple slices and other substances that will not immediately stop a mouse’s heart, McDonald’s has been working the adult/child divide for the last several years, so it’s only logical that they would again release Ronald McDonald into the wild. He is back; he is still simultaneously nonthreatening and extremely disturbing, and he is definitely for kids.
It is killing me that I cannot find embeddable video of the new commercial, but here it is. It promotes McDonald’s new Happymeal.com site—where kids can send each other “Ronald Grams,”* which I assume are not actually delivered by Ronald McDonald himself, although that would be a great way to employ local homeless—and it is pretty innocuous. After a split-second opening shot of Ronald greeting an incredibly attractive female jogger, he knocks on a series of doors belonging to a series of families—one for each of the four advertising races: white, black, Hispano-Asiatic and white. The children are thrilled by his antics, which include singing one word loudly for no reason like Oprah and, for the “grand finale,” dancing a “whirly-gig,” which is basically turning around once and awaiting a response. White clowns can’t dance, and black clowns are a shameful chapter in America’s history. So, you know, it’s a problem.
None of this is tremendously gross. The campaign and the website it promotes are clearly geared toward kids, but that’s hardly astonishing from a restaurant whose primary clientele consists of children, the developmentally disabled, and whoever is paying. I signed up for the Happymeal.com website—if you want to explore its many boring features, the username is “roromcd” and the password is “butts”—and the only information I had to provide was my gender and birth date. So much for the hysterical fear that McDonald’s is gathering the names and addresses of children across America. Still, the question remains: is this okay?
If you believe it is morally wrong to market products directly to children, the answer is yes. You are going to be sorely disappointed with vast portions of the American economy, though. There’s certainly an argument to be made that kids—who have no purchasing power of their own, profoundly limited critical thinking abilities, and a perfect willingness to emotionally abuse their parents to get whatever trinket has most recently entered their field of vision—are not ethical targets for salesmanship. Yet we sell stuff to children all the time. We have entire television networks dedicated to the project, to say nothing of megacorporations like Disney and Mattel. If Barbie is okay, Ronald McDonald must be okay.
Of course, Barbie is not necessarily okay. She teaches kids a whole bunch of wrong ideas about what people look like, to say nothing of her relationship with Ken, who in real life would disappear from his box and start a new Dream House in another state every seven years. But what toy could possibly survive the Right Thinking test? The answer is Legos, but everything else—Monopoly, squirt guns, Eminem action figures—embodies some sort of unfortunate sentiment. It turns out that American culture is primarily about selling things, and much of it is gross, and many Americans are children. Selling gross things to American children therefore seems like a sort of Venn necessity.
Does that make it cool? Definitely not, but it does make it something we shouldn’t try to stop. The complaint that is is wrong to market to children ignores the fact that it is probably wrong to market to adults, too. Using a clown to convince kids to buy hamburgers seems messed up, but is it any worse than using Jenny McCarthy to convince dads to buy Palm Pilots? Sales culture is a desperate culture, as anyone who has been to a hotel bar on Tuesday night will tell you. Look closely enough at what we’re selling, whom we’re selling it to or how we’re selling it, and that desperation will make it ugly. We should definitely stop Ronald McDonald, possibly with some sort of pneumatic bolt gun, but we should probably also stop everything else.