Ronald McDonald Fallout: What Role Does Advertising Have in Childhood Obesity?

Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years. Obesity in children 6 to 11 has gone from 6.5 percent in 1980 to almost 20 percent in 2008. Parents are frantic, health professionals are alarmed and activists are up in arms.

Legislators are calling for a tax on soft drinks; some states are making it a requirement for restaurants to post calories on their menus. A few weeks ago Pepsi and others voluntarily pulled sugar-laden soft drinks from schools and the advocacy group Corporate Accountability International last week targeted the venerable spokes-clown for McDonald's, Ronald McDonald, saying for nearly 50 years he has hooked kids on unhealthy food, spurring an epidemic of diet-related diseases.

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What role has advertising played in the disturbing obesity epidemic facing American kids and are marketers being responsible in their advertising practices?

Most experts agree there is no single reason the youth of America are increasingly overweight. Lack of exercise, an increase in the availability of snacks and soft drinks in school, the growing number of fast food outlets in the country, the trend to larger portion sizes and the dramatic increase in the amount of time kids spend with media -- all play a part. The average kid spends 5 1/2 hours a day consuming media -- more time than kids spend doing anything else except sleeping.

A byproduct of all of that time in front of the TV is that the average child sees 40,000 TV commercials a year. Research has shown that a two- or three-year-old already knows the McDonald's logo, and a study conducted by Stanford doctors showed that children believed a number of foods, including milk and carrots, tasted better, by a significant margin when served in McDonald's packaging.

Ronald McDonald: The 'Heart and Soul' of Charity?

So if kids know brands, are influenced by them and may not be able to consume in moderation, what role does the advertiser have? McDonalds spokeswoman Becca Harry, responding to demands that Ronald McDonald be retired, said they have no plans to retire their "beloved brand ambassador."

"He is the heart and soul of Ronald McDonald House Charities, which lends a helping hand to families in their time of need, particularly when families need to be near their critically-ill children in hospitals. In fact, four million children are helped every year around the world through the 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," she said.

McDonald's is not the only culprit but nor is it the scapegoat. McDonald's is a victim of its success. There are more than 40,000 McDonald's restaurants worldwide with almost 14,000 in the U.S. Burger King has a little more than half of that. So Ronald McDonald is the real burger king. McDonald's spends over $2 billion a year on advertising.

With its Web site,, Corporate Accountability International details the activities it says Ronald McDonald is engaged in which, it believes, undermines parenting and makes it difficult for kids to resist engaging in unhealthy eating behavior.

How should McDonald's respond?

I think the company should acknowledge the influence Ronald has and pledge to act in a more responsible way to help attack the problem. They are not the sole cause, nor can they be the sole cure. But the one thing corporations seem to lack is common sense. Advertisers have a responsibility and they need to own up to it -- if only because when your customer base diminishes then so will your profits.

As obesity in children increases, marketers and their agencies have to be responsible in the same way as parents and schools do. Ronald McDonald, The Burger King and Charles Barkley (Taco Bell) all need to pull it back a few notches before we've crippled a generation with serious, preventable health issues by chasing incremental dollars.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Larry D. Woodard is president and CEO of Graham Stanley Advertising, a full-service advertising agency based in New York City. He is also chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies New York Council and the recipient of many prestigious industry awards, including two O'Toole Awards for Agency of the Year, the London International Award, Gold Effie, Telly, Mobius, Addy's and the Cannes Gold Lion. A blogger and a frequent public speaker, Woodard enjoys discussing the intersection of media, politics, entertainment and technology.