More recent heartening news — literally and figuratively– was the March 31 launch of the “Retire Ronald” campaign by Corporate Accountability International. CAI began work in the late ’70s as INFACT ( Infant Formula Action Coalition) , to create global awareness and action to curb the inappropriate marketing of baby formula in poor countries which caused devastating health and economic effects. Today the organization campaigns to change harmful corporate practices in many fields. Health continues as a major focus, so mounting concern about the now-global problem of childhood obesity prompted its new Retire Ronald campaign. Fast food, today an international industry, is part of the problem; McDonald’s business success its emblematic of its pervasive and detrimental reach. Since its start almost 50 years ago, McDonald’s has utilized an array of multimedia marketing pitches, both overt and subtle, specifically targeting children. The ubiquitous ads and events, in all their forms, often feature Ronald in likeness or in person. Detailed information about the Retire Ronald campaign, including deconstruction of ads and backgrounders on promotional techniques used by McDonald’s , and a 28-page report Clowning with Kids’ Health: The Case for Ronald McDonald’s Retirement, can be found the CAI website and the group’s Facebook page. Readers also have the opportunity to sign an online retirement card to convey their messages to McD’s corporate office.
Companies the size of McDonald’s are able to utilize multiple venues and a range of techniques to disseminate their messages to potential customers of all ages: children, youth, and adults. Of McDonald’s several websites, for example, its corporate site features a special section for students, which touts the many facets of its corporate social responsibility plus information on job and scholarship opportunities. In the FAQ section along with facts on company operations, item #14 in the Q & A presents distorted information about nutrition :
Isn’t it healthier for me to make lunch for my kids rather than buy it at McDonald’s?
Actually, a 4-piece Chicken McNuggets with Apple Dippers and milk contains fewer calories and fat than a homemade grilled cheese sandwich, cup of tomato soup and glass of lemonade.
Not only is the question not answered (and seems to address parents, not students) only a single type of McDonald’s fare is compared to single type of homemade meal, hardly a valid analysis! Parsing out comparisons between numerous McD items in contrast with a full array of possible home-prepared lunches could be the basis for an excellent lesson plan in independent living classes, for example.
Ronald McDonald has his own website directed at children with interactive online games, and messages informing parents that the activities help kids develop their fine motor skills . The main company site features products, nutrition information and special promotions along with “multicultural marketing” pages targeting at young African-American, Asian American ( with sections in Chinese and Korean) and Latino customers, the latter version in Spanish.
Through my own work that spans involvement with Healthy Skepticism ( an NGO which aims to promote health by countering misleading promotion of medicines) and my background as a nutrition educator and a mom of children now grown , I was glad to learn of the Retire Ronald campaign. My interest was further piqued because in the advocacy world too, I’ve been hearing other concerns related to Ronald, that make one wonder just how family-friendly he really is.
For starters, beyond just problematic promotions, is the fact that there are McDonald’s restaurants located in hospitals ,including in at least 30 in childrens hospitals around the country. According to a 2006 study published in Pediatrics, some 30% of all US hospitals had fast food restaurants located on their premises. The researchers also found that:
…the presence of a McDonald’s restaurant in a children’s hospital was associated with (1) increased fast food purchasing by parents, (2) the belief that McDonald’s Corporation was a hospital benefactor, and (3) more positive perceptions of the healthiness of McDonald’s food.
And when hospitals try to put words into action with their own health messages to patients and families, by eliminating fast food , they have faced corporate pushback. This was the experience of a new CEO at the Cleveland Clinic ,which specializes in cardiac care, when he tried to break a 10-year lease with McDonald’s.
The company’s clown mascot is further known around the world through his namesake Ronald McDonald House Charities . RMHC sponsors Ronald McDonald Houses, which meet the vital lodging needs of families of seriously ill children being treated at hospitals outside of their home communities. Reviews of company history have revealed that McDonald’s got involved with charitable work not purely out of altruism as is commonly believed, but to enhance its own image and thus its bottom line, through branding opportunities . According to research cited by CAI ( see pages 5 and 27 of the full report) Fred Turner, former McD’s CEO and Chairman once told an interviewer:
We got into it [ charitable work] for very selfish reasons, It was an inexpensive, imaginative way of getting your name before the public and building a reputation to offset the image of selling fifteen cent hamburgers. It was probably ninety-nine percent commercial.
RMH facilities are lodge-style homes-away-from-home , usually situated adjacent to hospitals, in cities around the globe. The Houses in the US typically charge $10-$25 per night and RMHC Global has a universal access policy as part of its mission, stating that:
…..families either stay at no cost or are asked to make a donation up to $25 per day, depending on the house. The RMHC Global Policy is that families are never turned away; if its not possible to pay, the fee is waived.
There is a great need for this service, as in addition to the medical expenses, families also face enormous uncovered non-medical costs just at the time when income is decreased due to the sick child’s hospitalization and care needs. With hospital stays typically lasting from weeks to many months, even paying for subsidized temporary lodging ,while also paying rent or a mortgage back home, may be impossible. As illustration of the great demand for lodging support are the facts that many RMHs keep waiting lists, and that many like the RMH in San Diego, report having had to turn away hundreds of families each year due to lack of space.
RMHC is a 501(c)3, tax-exempt US charitable organization, separate from the McDonald’s Corporation, it’s principal corporate sponsor. The RM Houses are run by local chapters of the RMHC, and each chapter is incorporated as an independent charitable organization in its home state, and conducts local fundraising, including at McDonald’s stores . For more about the links between McDonald’s and RMHC, see Our Relationship with McDonald’s.
There is the irony of course that this essential healthcare support service is so heavily supported by the sales and promotion of unhealthy food. But there are other issues too about the conditional welcome, or even exclusion, that some families may encounter at individual RMHC facilities, and how RMH employees may be treated.
There seems to be some variability in the universal access policy, although the vast majority of the RMHC chapter websites that I reviewed– including Springfield, MO, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Seattle, Austin, TX, Cleveland, Los Angeles, just to name a few– explicitly state that no one is ever turned away because of inability to pay. In New York City however, this does not seem to be the case, as their RMH website says only that There is a $35.00 fee per night, per room to stay at Ronald McDonald House of New York, and offers no information on flexibilities.
While Salt Lake City RMH too has the open financial policy, published on its website is the stipulation that “For those who do not speak English an interpreter will need to accompany them on their first visit“. I’ve heard anecdotally that telephonic interpreting is not acceptable , although this service is commonly utilized by hospitals to complement live interpreter services. Especially for families arriving after business hours, this requirement can be impossible to meet; it resonates as mean-spirited and exclusionary. The Birmingham AL RMH website states that families can bring a friend or family member who can translate…..if you do not speak English. (FYI, interpretation refers to spoken or signed language, while translation is exclusively of written work; these terms are frequently confused). While I’m not an attorney, I do know that these are the kind of policies which need to be reviewed for compliance with civil rights laws pertaining to public accommodations.
The validity of the warm, fuzzy, caring attitude associated with Ronald in all his manifestations has at times been the subject of headlines regarding issues that have arisen at individual RMHs including:
- a 2005 case in Baltimore, where a family of a child about to undergo heart surgery, was initially turned away by the facility because the patient’s blind mother was accompanied by a guide dog, in supposed violation of a RMH “no pets” rule .
- a 2007 case in Houston, where the mother of an infant who had just undergone surgery for a brain tumor, was admonished for nursing him in a common area of the RMH, with implications made that if family wished to continue their stay , breastfeeding should be done only in the family bedroom.
- a 2009 case in Miami, where the former assistant manager of RMH of South Florida has filed a lawsuit alleging violation of labor laws as she was often required to work off the clock, and did not receive $20,000 in overtime pay for her customary 70-hour work weeks.
It’s important to know too that sponsorships by major corporations, which come product promotion ties, are not the only way to meet the housing needs of sick kids and their families. All around the country (and the world too) there are grassroots endeavors, by both organizations and individuals, providing patient lodging. To learn more , visit the website of the National Association of Hospitality Houses.
Retiring Ronald could be a positive step to improving the health and well-being of our children, one meal at a time.