McDonald's CEO to food police: Hands off Ronald McDonald

Ronald McDonald gives a speech at McDonald's World Children's Day on November 9, 2004 at McDonald's in the Silverlake section of Los Angeles, California.
Photo by Amanda Edwards/Getty Images
McDonald's "spokesclown" Ronald McDonald at an event in Los Angeles on November 9, 2004.
Getty Images

(CBS/AP) Should Ronald McDonald retire?

Healthy-eating activists say the 48-year-old "spokesclown" hooks kids on junk food and insist the time has come for the burger-pushing mascot to hang up his floppy shoes and clown nose.

Not so fast, says McDonald's CEO Jim Skinner. Speaking Thursday at the chain's annual meeting outside Chicago, he said recent newspapers ads calling for Ronald's ouster had prompted an outpouring of support to his office, with parents and customers asking Skinner "to defend their right to choose."

The ads - paid for by an activist group called Corporate Accountability International - appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, New York Metro and four other papers. They were signed by more than 550 health groups and professionals and carried the headline "Doctors' Orders: Stop Marketing Junk Food To Kids."

McDonald's says it is proud of the food it offers and that Ronald teaches children to be active. New commercials show him as an active, athletic clown who plays soccer, shoots hoops and encourages kids to visit McDonald's website. There's barely a mention of burgers and fries.

Ronald has also been the face of Ronald McDonald House Charities, which provides free or inexpensive housing for families who must travel to get medical treatment for a child. He still shows up as often as ever at camps for sick children and charity events.

Maybe so. But a 2010 study published in "Pediatrics" found that branding food products with cartoon characters clearly influences young children's taste preferences, easily luring them to eat junk food. And childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Almost one in three children is now overweight or obese.

Nick Guroff, a spokesman for Corporate Accountability International, said while that's a worthwhile charity, "to use that as their excuse for marketing junk food to kids is sort of having their burger and eating it too."

What do you think? Is Ronald McDonald a friend - or a healthy-eating foe?