Call for Ronald's retirement unlikely to affect McDonald's brand

An activist group this week called for McDonald's to retire its smiling Ronald McDonald brand ambassador, saying the 50-year-old Chief Happiness Officer is hooking kids on a harmful product.

An activist group this week called for McDonald's to retire its smiling Ronald McDonald brand ambassador, saying the 50-year-old Chief Happiness Officer is hooking kids on a harmful product. The Corporate Accountability International's "Retire Ronald" campaign targets McDonald's with a new Web site, RetireRonald.org, Twitter,  Facebook, and using volunteers across the country to conduct grassroots outreach, encouraging people to sign retirement cards for Ronald.

The organization also hosted press conferences in New York and San Francisco on March 31, where it released the results of a survey on consumers' thoughts on Ronald, asserting that while 66% of Americans have a favorable impression of Ronald McDonald, 47% of Americans support the effort for him to retire, including 46% of those with a favorable impression.

But McDonald's isn't budging and a number of PR pros suggest it shouldn't— or at least not in the way CAI would like.

"There is a lot of equity they have in Ronald McDonald and the brand, and I think it would take a lot to chip away at it," says Chris Gidez, US head of risk management and crisis communications for Hill & Knowlton. "I think this is nothing more than a stunt for this NGO to get some attention … and I would be highly surprised if these had any traction at all."

R.J. Hottovy, an equity analyst for Morningstar, points out that McDonald's has survived worse press. The 2004 Super Size Me documentary, for example, which documented the negative side effects that one filmmaker suffered while eating a McDonald's-only diet.

"There have been similar campaigns launched against McDonald's in the past, and generally speaking, the company has been able to thrive through those," says Hottovy. "The largest player in the industry, a lot of times they [bear the] brunt of blame when it comes to childhood obesity."

Steve Cody, cofounder and managing partner of Peppercom, agrees that the company will not take a reputational hit from this campaign. Yet he suggests that McDonald's turn this negative into a positive given the increased focus on Americans' waistlines from all sides.

"Ronald is the number-one icon that I and, I think, most Americans associate with America's obesity problem," Cody says. "If I were McDonald's, I would see this as a thought leadership opportunity. I would totally do a makeover on Ronald and make Ronald Mr. Nutrition 101, with a special effort aimed at kids."

For its part, the organizers at CAI, which is credited with helping to discontinue use of Joe the Camel, say they are determined to take down the clown as well.

"We're working to reach millions of people from traditional news media, through using social media," says Patti Lynn, campaigns director for CAI, which is receiving support from Fenton Communications. "We'll be continuing to provide information and analysis, like we are with the report we're releasing that really highlights the way that Ronald McDonald is used to market to kids."

Ronald appeared in his first TV commercial in 1966, according to a historical timeline on McDonald's Web site. His other kid-friendly friends like Hamburglar and Grimace joined Ronald in the happy McDonaldland restaurants and promotions in 1971. It wasn't long after that Ronald also became the face of the company's charity programs that brought housing to the families of sick kids, grants to other children health focused programs, and scholarships.

McDonald's declined to comment to PRWeek, but sent the following statement: "Ronald McDonald is a beloved brand ambassador for McDonald's. He is the heart and soul of Ronald McDonald House Charities…Ronald also helps deliver messages to families on many important subjects such as safety, literacy, and the importance of physical activity and making balanced food choices. That's what Ronald McDonald is all about, which our customers know and appreciate."

The campaign was covered by outlets such as Chicago Tribune, CNN.com, Gothamist, and ABC.com. 

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