Dept. of Professional Scolding

Like any reasonably interesting job, mine is full of things to enjoy and things to lament.  I love becoming part of my patients’ lives, and getting to know their families.  I dislike having to document all of my continuing education credits to supplicate the gods of licensure and accreditation.  I like those moments when I know I’ve given a parent helpful advice.  I hate drawing blood from small children.  Etc.

And boy, oh boy, oh boy, do I hate it when my colleagues make themselves ridiculous.  From the WSJ:

More than 550 health professionals and organizations have signed a letter to McDonald’s Corp. asking the maker of Happy Meals to stop marketing junk food to kids and retire Ronald McDonald.

The letter, slated to run in the form of full-page ads in six metropolitan newspapers around the country on Wednesday, acknowledges that “the contributors to today’s (health) epidemic are manifold and a broad societal response is required. But marketing can no longer be ignored as a significant part of this massive problem.”


The McDonald’s letter, scheduled to run in ads in the Chicago Sun-Times, New York Metro, Boston Metro, San Francisco Examiner, Minneapolis City Pages and Baltimore City Paper, has been signed by such groups as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Chicago Hispanic Health Coalition, as well as by well-known nutritionists and doctors like Andrew Weil, a doctor and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine.

First of all, can I just say how relieved I am to see that the American Academy of Pediatrics is not on this list?  (Please, merciful heavens, don’t let the American Academy of Pediatrics be on this list.)  It was bad enough when “we” suggested a redesign for the hot dog.  I don’t think I could stand going after a TV clown.

I was born in the mid-70s, and watched a respectable amount of television throughout my formative years during the Reagan administration.  I was thus exposed to a steady stream of ads featuring Ronald McDonald, Toucan Sam, Tony the Tiger, kids infinitely cooler-looking than me drinking Capri Sun, and a gigantic anthropomorphic pitcher of Kool-Aid that would burst through people’s walls.    Hell, there was even a Saturday morning cartoon that was basically a 30-minute ad for gummi bears.  Somehow I survived this onslaught without becoming morbidly obese.  (I also survived watching the “Dungeons and Dragons” cartoon despite being raised in a church that believed doing so was essentially the same thing as carving a pentagram on your forehead.)

You know a big reason why I didn’t get monstrously fat, no matter how many advertisements I saw that hawked “breakfast” “foods” that comprise mainly sugar and artificial coloring?  Because [insert drum roll], my mother didn’t buy them! Lacking an income and a car of my own, I was rather at her mercy when it came to what was on offer in the mornings.  (Typically, congealed Cream of Wheat.)  Every so often we would eat at a fast food restaurant as a special treat, and even more rarely some weird wind would blow and she would buy Trix or some such.  But the overwhelming majority of the time our breakfast cereals were Shredded Wheat or Cheerios, and our dinners were made at home.  When we went out to dinner, I got milk to drink.

God help us if parents have so become utterly powerless or inept that the only way we can protect our poor, innocent children is to suck all the possibly harmful joy out of their minds.  We may as well teach them to bounce balls in perfect unison and be done with it.  Unless I am gravely mistaken, televisions still come with “off” buttons as a standard feature.  Moms and Dads of America, you can control much of what your children eat!  If you don’t buy junk food, your kids won’t have much access to it.  If you don’t drive them to Taco Bell, your kids probably won’t be able to order whatever it is they’re calling a meal there these days.  Quite regularly I will encounter a parent who laments how much prepackaged crap their kid eats, and I then politely point out that the parent is the one who is stocking the house with it in the first place.

McDonald’s and General Mills and Kraft and all the rest of them are marketing products, almost all of which are fine in moderate amounts and are problematic if you consume them to excess.  There should be some reasonable limits on how much they are allowed to make their products accessible to children, in my humble opinion.  (I don’t believe fast food should be an option for school lunches, nor do I like soft drink machines in schools.)  But making Happy Meals more morose and killing off beloved (if cloying) corporate mascots is just silly, and transforms the people making these recommendations from helpful stewards of public health into dour professional scolds.  (Color me skeptical, but  I also have my doubts that putting the kibosh on Ronald will make a perceptible dent on our nation’s obesity rates.)

Childhood is full of influences both benign and corrosive.  Pediatricians certainly play a role in helping parents arbitrate these influences.  But at the end of the day, mothers and fathers are the most important decision-makers for their kids.  Surely they should be able to withstand even the most heartfelt pleas from their children for candy and snack cakes and burgers most of the time, thus allowing the Keebler Elves to live another day.  After all, didn’t today’s parents survive these commercials themselves?

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. I think advertising to children is immoral. It’s necessarily coercive. That said, given that this is a minority view and there is not widespread denunciation of the practice, parents certainly can exert control over what their kids eat. The way some parents talk as if they are helpless in the face of an onslaught of prepackaged food is baffling.

    I think the doctors’ associations miss the point. Ronald McDonald is not (primarily) a problem because it encourages children to get fat. Marketing to children is in itself manipulative of those without the resources accurately to judge the claims being made.

    • > Marketing to children is in itself manipulative of
      > those without the resources accurately to judge
      > the claims being made.

      There is sufficient evidence to convince me that a substantial portion of the adult population is without the resources to accurately judge the claims being made. Does this make marketing to adults immoral too?

      Does it matter if the coerciveness is well-intentioned? If I market apple juice because I think it’s good for kids to drink apple juice, and because I believe that too many parents buy their kids soda, is that immoral?

      • I don’t know what the evidence you have against adults is. Most adults are sufficiently rational. And yes, I think it is immoral to try to coerce a non-rational adult.

        I take coercion to be something that is not in the person’s interest. If that person, given all the information, would share that end, then it is not coercion.

        • > I don’t know what the evidence you have against adults is.

          Every time I read a decently constructed poll (discounting, of course, badly-constructed polls) of the American public, I’m astonished how poorly-informed people actually are.

          I’ll grant for the sake of argument that we ought to expect adults to be sufficiently rational (whether or not they actually are is an open question).

          But to think that they’re equipped with enough information to accurately judge the claims being made by advertisers sort of introduces a weird discontinuity: explain why people use the Lap Band (TM)? Homeopathy? Why are psychics in business?

      • Indeed, what I’m wondering is whether Ronald McDonald actually is marketing to children. Maybe it’s more marketing to adults with childlike sensibilities, who believe that “happy clowns + bright colors + cute music = OKAY FOR KIDS”

  2. A bit off topic, but I happened to love the old Dungeons and Dragons cartoon. I thought they were well done, especially the second season, and actually dealt with some interesting issues.

  3. When you honestly believe that it’s a wicked, harmful act to say “no” to a child’s request, then of course it makes sense to ensure that they only request the right things.

    • It is of course necessary to say “no” to children. When one has to say no repeatedly about something they wouldn’t even be asking for if some ad man hadn’t turned all of his persuasive powers to brainwashing small children into desiring it, one starts to think about the proper rewards for members of that segment of the profession. Say, boiling oil, or the rack.

      • It’s not the ad man, necessarily.

        My nephew knew a great deal about Darth Vader when he was age six (this was two years ago).

        *HOW* in the heck could he *POSSIBLY* know as much about Vader as he did? Let me assure you: he parents hadn’t let him watch the movies. He didn’t watch much television (trust me on this: I know his parents). He didn’t even spent particular amounts of time with the books.

        How did he know these things? His peers. That’s right: the other kids in pre-school get together and they discuss such things as Darth Vader. Then, come various weekends, they get together with family (including uncles) and ask clarification questions from what they’ve learned in pre-school from the other kids… and then they can go back with “my uncle says that Darth Vader’s tie fighter has better shields than regular tie fighters” and important knowledge is transferred.

        I don’t think Ad Men are the problem here.

  4. I remember raising three kids with a steady diet of junk TV and quite a bit o’ junk food. They all turned out okay, but I did have to fend off the Advertising Culture. Here’s how I did it.

    I took each kid in turn and paid them a dollar to smile for fifteen seconds and hop around with one of their toys, just pretending to enjoy it. I explained, that’s what those kids in the ads are doing: they’re being paid to smile. Those toys are being portrayed in an good a light as they can manage and they still look pathetic, most of ’em. They’re not selling you a toy, they’re selling you on the idea you’re not happy unless you have that toy.

    I used to have a hassle taking them to Walmart or any other such joint, they’d beg me for this ‘n that. So I stopped shopping, whipped out my little notebook and told them “We will look at everything in this store and I will make a list of everything you want. We will go home, you will look over that list and choose one item apiece. We’ll come back in three days and I’ll buy it. How many times have I bought you kids some One Day Wonder, only to have it fall apart and make you cry? Think about it, then buy it. That’s what adults do, they don’t buy just everything they want when they see it. And think about it, you’re my kids, why wouldn’t I want you to have what you really want?” Spent like three hours in that Walmart and the list was surprisingly short.

    Sure enough, they pored over that list, chose something they really wanted. Never whined in a store again. I’d go over and look at anything they wanted, but that three hours in the store cured the Impulse Buying Monster completely.

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