"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?