Somewhere, Grimace is blinking his eyes, shedding a hairy, purple tear or two.
That’s because last week, a consumer watchdog group hit media pay dirt by demanding the retirement of Ronald McDonald. (Actually, for a group trying to deep-fry a clown, the organization bears the cartoonishly generic name of Corporate Accountability International. CAI? Sounds like a CIA cover.)
Anyway, in calling for Ronald’s deep-sixing, CAI spokesperson Deborah Lapidus said, “This clown is no friend to our children or their health,” and compared him to Joe Camel.
Well, obviously, there is no arguing with her from the health point of view. Cheap and easy, McDonald’s food is the new tobacco; it’s an addictive, artery-clogging enemy that no doubt has added to the country’s childhood obesity problem. And from a PR angle, calling for Ronald’s bewigged head on a platter is a skillful, shorthand way to attack all fast food in general.
Specifically, though, it appears that as a corporation with at least some accountability, McDonald’s has already thought this clown-as-target thing through. They now call him the company’s “Chief Happiness Officer,” which is cheesy, to be sure, but also connotes that he’s been kicked upstairs, as have the other non-PC characters in McDonaldland, like the Hamburglar and Grimace.
Rather, his name now mostly stands for the Ronald McDonald Houses, a global system of extended-stay housing for families with chronically ill children. It serves an incredibly useful niche in every community in which it operates, and deserves buckets of praise.
And certainly, it’s likely that the remembered smell of the fries, the playgrounds, ball pits and toy giveaways are what attract kids to the Golden Arches, not a terrifying symbol in a blindingly yellow jumpsuit, with black apostrophe eyebrows, smeared-on lipstick and a bright orange shock wig. In fact, these days, if you wanted to create a child molester-type icon who could out-Chucky any horror movie character in terms of scaring kids, it would be Ronald as he was designed in the late 1960s.
Speaking of a post-modern Bozo, though, more troubling to me, from an ethical point of view, is “Sneaky King,” the latest Burger King commercial, which shows the King breaking in to McDonald’s headquarters to steal the Egg McMuffin recipe. I get that it’s memorable because it raises eyebrows: you don’t see that many commercials for $1 eggs and sausage promoting seriously illegal corporate espionage. (In one real-life example, this was actually the cause of a huge 1997 lawsuit and years of wrangling between Nestle and Mars; Nestle had proof that Mars pulled some dirty tricks in getting its Nestle’s Magic Chocolate Ball axed from grocers’ shelves.)
The details in the Burger King spot are funny, like the King’s hoodie disguise and stopping to get his parking ticket validated. And the line “It’s not that original, but it’s super affordable” is clever.
But it sends an unseemly message to kids who don’t necessarily get that advertising should be “risk-taking.” (And gives us TMI about what the King does nocturnally.) Seriously, why give the competition that much attention? If BK wants McDonald’s to look like a big, grim, prison-like corporation, then why steal a recipe from it? And even if you are presenting your own knockoff as cheaper, why present any Burger King food as warmed-over McDonald’s?
The idea that it’s cheaper than an Egg McMuffin might get a few bottom feeders energized, but then again, the whole idea also will remind consumers that the original might be worth a trip.
“`You deserve a break-in today” might just backfire on BK and outrage enough people to become McD loyalists. Although once the customers get there, they might want to paraphrase the Godfather, “Take the Egg McMuffins, leave the clown.”