It strikes some as ridiculous to compare a "smooth character" who extols smoking with a floppy-shoed clown meant to represent the joy of mini hamburgers. But to many activists on the frontline of the war on obesity, the McDonald's mascot is pushing a product they claim is as dangerous as a cigarette.
It strikes others as ludicrous to suggest that fast-food marketing will go the way of tobacco advertising, which abdicated from TV in 1971 and is today a shadow of its former self. Then again, in the early 20th century it was unthinkable that cigarettes would one day be vilified—just as there was little inkling in 1979, when McDonald's rolled out the first Happy Meals, that more than 30 years later they would become a whipping boy for the national obesity epidemic.
This is why the fast-food industry seems to be taking proactive steps to raise its image by focusing on moderation, new kids' meals, exercise and health initiatives.
"To compare Ronald McDonald to Joe Camel is unfair and inaccurate," said Neil Golden, chief marketing officer at McDonald's USA. "Ronald McDonald represents the joy and fun of the McDonald's brand and brings happiness to people of all ages. He delivers messages to families on many subjects, such as safety, literacy, anti-bullying and the importance of physical activity." Indeed, Ronald's role nowadays is focused less on the food and more on the chain's charitable work.
But that the comparison has been made to Joe -- who was voluntarily dropped by the tobacco industry as part of the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement -- raises an important question: Just how did fast food become the nutritional bad guy?