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.
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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