Why Australia started turning on McDonald's

"Clowns have always creeped me out, but none more so than Ronald McDonald".

"Clowns have always creeped me out, but none more so than Ronald McDonald". Photo: Getty

I was mildly surprised and, yes, I admit, more than a little pleased to read of fast-food giant McDonald's sales going backwards here in Australia.   

Last month, at an investment seminar in the US, McDonald's global chief executive and president Don Thompson warned investors that “lower levels of spending in Australia and cut-throat competition among fast-food chains in the region had slashed revenue for the company”.

While Thompson blamed the downturn mainly on youth unemployment (which he curiously quoted at 25% despite recent ABS figures putting it at around 11.6%), I couldn’t help thinking that he had the wrong guy, so to speak.

You see I feel…well, kind of responsible for the pickle McDonald's has found itself in.

Not only have I managed to easily bypass those Golden Arches over the years, but my husband and I have instilled in our boys the kind of anti-Macca's sentiment that would be right at home on a Tecoma picket line.

And we’re not alone. At a time in our lives when out-sourcing kids’ birthday parties has become something of a priority, if not an outright obsession, the McDonald's Birthday Party invitation has been conspicuously absent from our fridge door.

It’s curious, really. At around $10 per child, a Macca's (as we Aussies have dubbed the franchise) birthday party is as close to value-for-money as themed parties get, so it doesn’t seem to me to be a decision driven by cost as much as by fashion and favour. Once a Mecca for hungry kids nationwide, we’re now wise to the fact that a Macca's menu comes packed with more than just preservatives.

No wonder its bottom line is suffering. It must be a terrible blow for a franchise that’s been nothing if not attentive to our needs. In fact, you can say that it’s made it something of a career out of getting to know the “gatekeepers” (the official McDonalds’ term for parents). Never mind, getting around them.

“Pester power” or “the nag factor” are the charming terms marketers use to describe a child’s special ability to wear us down. It’s part and parcel of the concept of “cradle to grave marketing” that acknowledges that the earlier you establish a brand preference, naturally the stronger the bond between consumer and brand.

And you’d be hard-pressed to find a fast-food franchise that does this better than Macca's.

According to the 2010 Flinders University study, “Targeting Children with Integrated Marketing Communications”, McDonald's has the “most sophisticated, extensive, and integrated communication strategy targeted at children…including outdoor advertising, sponsorship, menu design, store layout, visual shortcuts, characters, online promotions, interactive websites, brand associations and connections, product placement, and charities”.

Can you blame us for being a little on edge when yet another McDonald’s restaurant moves into our neighbourhood? Like a dodgy ‘uncle’, you’ll find the franchise wherever the kids are—shopping centres, on corner blocks of main streets, entertainment complexes, near schools and inside hospitals.

Clowns have always creeped me out, but none (Chuckie the Clown notwithstanding) more so than Ronald McDonald. And now I know why. A 2007 Corporations and Health Watch report, quoting the results of an Australian study of 9- to 10-year-olds, found that more than half believed that “Ronald McDonald knew what was best for them to eat”.

An earlier version of the McDonald's website had its young visitors respond to the character (the “ultimate authority on everything”) as if to a real person. They were encouraged to send in an email telling “Ronald” their favourite food, sports team, book and their name. Like I said. Disturbing.

And for all that talk of 100% beef patties and its more recent emphasis on its “healthy choice options” menu range, there’s always been a sense that the McDonald's marketing department was, in truth, a theatre of smoke and mirrors.

As a 2010 Yale study showed, McDonald’s restaurants rarely offer parents the healthy kids’ meal choices and children as young as two are seeing more fast food ads than ever before. So much for options or choice, for that matter.

There’s a thing about kids though. They’re pretty cluey. Not to mention, direct. Among the crowd at that investors’ conference last month was a nine-year-old girl who saw the spin for the bullsh1t it clearly was, urging Thompson to stop “tricking kids into eating your food”.

I never thought I’d say this, but there’s a positive flipside to the integrated marketing strategy. Anytime we pass the Golden Arches, our kids, aged 3 and 6 respectively, take that as their cue to squeal: “Macca's” before putting on an animated display of dry retching.

If that’s not bona fide brand identification, then what is?

177 comments

  • Macca's is the best example of a company with massive product level issues. They've failed to move with the times, and they're now THE roadside symbol for parents to teach their kids about what not to eat.

    Commenter
    Peter
    Location
    Blairgowrie
    Date and time
    August 14, 2013, 8:55AM
    • Can't agree more Pete. It's easy to talk numbers and the economy to shareholders, however they fail to see that these days, many are simply eating better and choose not to consume their product disguised as 'food'.

      Commenter
      RichardRColeman
      Location
      Gold Coast
      Date and time
      August 14, 2013, 9:28AM
    • A bit like the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise.

      Commenter
      John
      Location
      East Gippsland
      Date and time
      August 14, 2013, 12:26PM
    • They've done a much, much better job at moving with the times than their competition. But yeah, they need to do more.
      I eat Macca's reguarly because I spend a lot of time on the road and its one of the few places that will take my company card reliably. It is possible to eat a decent enough meal at McDonalds without stuffing yourself full of fat. Having said that, I don't let my kids go near it. My 4 year old literally pooped himself last time he ate some. He had some sort of reaction to it and all he ate was fries and soft-drink. So my kids associate Maccas with that and I'm glad for it.

      Commenter
      steven
      Location
      newcastle
      Date and time
      August 14, 2013, 12:41PM
    • Yeah Richard is right.

      We have one of the highest rates of obesity in the world because "many are simply eating better".

      A few inner city foodies who like to photgraph their food add a filter and upload it to Instagram are not representative of the country.

      I'm more inclined to believe the CEO of McD's explanation of flat sales than some great dietary change in Australia.

      Commenter
      Tony "Holy" Mackeral
      Date and time
      August 14, 2013, 12:45PM
    • I don't the anti-Maccas sentiment in Australia.

      I'm a parent of 2 kids: 3 & 5 and its a treat for them. If I judge fast food on how it makes me feel afterwards I reckon KFC is soooooooooo much worse.

      Everything in moderation...

      Commenter
      Alex
      Location
      Geelong
      Date and time
      August 14, 2013, 12:53PM
    • I don't know what Maccas stands for any more. It used to be trashy hamburgers that had some guilty appeal... but healthy food or coffee? Not in a million years.

      Worse, their much vaunted (if plastic) service has practically disappeared, so it's now just a depressing fast-food joint you can't wait to get out of.

      Worse still, their heavy-handed tactics in places like Tecoma destroys what little is left of their reputation. They can't win with that attitude, nor should they.

      Commenter
      Foris
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      August 14, 2013, 1:34PM
    • Yes -you all don't like Maccas.

      There are lots of fast food chains and other restaurant eating options which offer a narrower range of more unhealthy eating option than Macdonalds. Pizza and deep fried chicken for instance. But despite the effort made by Macdonalds to offer healthy choices they still seem to cop 90% of the criticism. I don't get it. What I do get is that it is not the ads on TV that hurt people- it is sitting around on your backside watching the programs. And that goes double for kids. Perhaps they should ban kids tv instead of worrying about the ads.

      Commenter
      Busker
      Location
      summer hill.
      Date and time
      August 14, 2013, 1:37PM
    • Busker, I don't like fast food "restaurants" full stop. Maccas is particularly insidious because of the way they target kids not just with their Happy Meals and junky plastic toys, but the way they get into kid's activities with their sponsorship -- yeah get into Little Athletics, run around the oval and the prize is a voucher for deep fried, preservative rich, nutrition poor rubbish. That's why they cop 90% of the criticism.
      We rarely eat it and, yes my kids also make the vomiting sound when we pass Maccas or Kentucky Chucks.

      Commenter
      CeePee
      Date and time
      August 14, 2013, 3:54PM
  • Hopefully good riddance to the most vile of foods, oh wait hang it's not even a food.

    Commenter
    2shoes
    Date and time
    August 14, 2013, 8:56AM

    More comments

    Comments are now closed