SAO PAULO — A Brazilian version of Ronald McDonald, the famous clown mascot, has taken to visiting nursery schools, kindergartens and primary schools. The well-known face of the fast food chain has been performing shows for young children and even babies, at both public and private schools.
But not everyone is so amused.
A growing number of parents have made complaints about the shows, which they see as a marketing gimmick aimed at encouraging their children’s desires to consume the fast-food giant’s notoriously unhealthy products.
Last month, the Alana Institute, an organization that defends children’s rights, sent tapes of the shows to the Justice and Education Ministries. The group asked the government to take immediate measures against such practices in schools.
When they learned about the clown’s presence in their children’s schools, many parents decided to complain directly to the headmasters and, in some cases, were able to have the shows cancelled. Others chose to keep their sons and daughters at home when Ronald was in town. The Alana Institute’s attorney, Ekaterine Karageorgiadis, said that McDonald’s was notified by the organization in August and that they were given 10 days to cancel all shows. They did not comply and merely responded that the shows were about “fun and education.”
Although the clown doesn’t talk about Happy Meals during the shows, Alana believes that the use of the logo as well as Ronald’s character itself can have an influence on children and turn them into potential consumers of the brand. “Say a child spends one hour in a school environment doing fun activities with the clown. When outside the school, the child will be looking for that character again. And where will he find him? At McDonald’s,” explains the attorney, who is also a counselor for Brazil’s National Food and Nutrition Security Council.
An insidious approach
Ronald McDonald’s show includes games, magic tricks and entertainment activities, supposedly educational, for the pupils. “The fun environment and the presence of the clown, the brand’s flagship, serve to create an emotional link between children and the fast-food chain,” Karageorgiadis says.
It was possible, not so long ago, to check on McDonald’s website about which schools Ronald had been or was going to visit. Now the website only indexes the shows made in their restaurants. According to research by the Alana Institute, there were 69 school shows in June and July alone.
The attorney believes that regardless of whether the food is healthy or not, propaganda in schools needs to be considered abusive and illegal. “No product should target children. They need to be sold to adults. A child alone cannot analyze this type of message. We need to alert headmasters so that they understand that their schools also have a fundamental role to play in the children's development and understanding.”
The marketing operation increases consumerist habits, the institute says. “The fact that it’s a fast food chain only makes it worse,” it says.
In 2011, Folha de S. Paulo commissioned a nationwide survey by the Alana Institute showing that 56% of the 2,061 people interviewed were opposed to propaganda in schools such as handing out leaflets and freebies or selling products, even with the headmasters’ approval.
The research also revealed that wealthier and more educated families are more tolerant toward advertisements in schools. But despite it being rejected by a majority, it is not against the law.
The lower chamber of Parliament has been considering legislation to regulate children-aimed advertisement for 12 years, and on Sept. 19, a draft bill was finally sent to the Justice and Citizenship Constitutional Commission. It is still unclear when the bill will be introduced to the Senate, though.
McDonald’s advisory board says the company has not been notified by the Alana Institute and confirms that the shows would go on as scheduled.
“The only goals of the Ronald McDonald shows are to entertain and educate,” a statement from the board says. “The content of the representations pass on values that support parents in how they educate their children, with themes such as, among others, respecting the environment and the promotion of physical activity.”
When asked how many shows took place in schools and how these were selected, the advisory board declined to reply. The company also declined to reply to the question of why the listing of shows had been removed from their website.