He was never a couch potato, but during his first 42 years as corporate mascot, Ronald McDonald gobbled plenty of french fries as he tangled with the Hamburglar and enticed children with Happy Meals.
Not any more. The clown known around the world as the champion of Big Macs and fried apple pies has been born again as a fitness fanatic. In a global advertising campaign starting today, Ronald McDonald dons a streamlined version of his familiar jumpsuit and urges kids to get off their couches and join him as he snowboards, bicycles and plays basketball with NBA star Yao Ming.
After taking heat for contributing to the childhood obesity epidemic in the United States, McDonald's is retooling its mascot's image in commercials that promote sound nutrition and exercise, trying to keep its edge in the fiercely competitive fast-food industry.
"People like to cast this as a health issue, but this is really [market] positioning," said Michael Allenson, a principal with Technomic, a Chicago-based food service consulting firm.
Other fast-food chains, such as Hardee's and Burger King, have decided recently to market to men with enormous sandwiches such as Hardee's Monster Thickburger. But McDonald's is trying to woo women with premium salads and appeals to their children with the new, improved Ronald McDonald, Allenson said.
Yesterday the company released its earnings report and gave salads as one reason for a 1.8 percent sales increase in May.
In the chain's "Come Out and Play" ad, Ronald McDonald, clad in a helmet, goggles and his signature big red shoes, comes off as a total sports dude as he juggles vegetables and dodges strawberries - with no burgers or fries in sight.
"It's all about Ronald communicating about achieving active lifestyles that are important to us because it's important to our customers," said McDonald's spokeswoman Lisa Howard.
But Jayne Hurley, a senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said, "The makeover should be on the menu, not on Ronald. This is public relations trying to put a good face on the fact that most of the menu is burgers, fries and Cokes."
Simone A. French, a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota, is also leery of Ronald McDonald's newly professed health concerns. "The response of the food industry to the whole obesity epidemic is ... not that people are eating too much and that the portion sizes are gigantic, it's that people are too sedentary."
While French is pleased with McDonald's decision to eliminate "super-size" items and offer salads, such as its new fruit and walnut salad, the Ronald McDonald makeover is "a distraction" from the real issue, she said. "They're marketing really high-fat food and humongus size portions."
French helped write a report released last September by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies that found that the food and beverage industries spend "$10 billion to $12 billion annually marketing to children and youth." More than half of those ads promote candy, fast foods, soft drinks and other products high in calories, according to the report.
Howard said the Ronald McDonald makeover is not a response to the childhood obesity epidemic. "Ronald has a long history of addressing subjects of importance, [such as] seatbelt safety, fire safety, literacy and environmental awareness," she said.
Fast food patrons differ on whether Ronald McDonald's new role as exercise guru will make a difference in the choices that kids make. "A lot of kids imitate what they see and they look up to him," said Lakisha Brown, 25, after having lunch yesterday at a McDonald's in downtown Baltimore. "If they see him eating fruit and exercising, they'll want to do the same thing, just like when you eat greasy hamburgers and french fries that's what they want," said the mother of a 2-year-old daughter.
But Jane Eckman a Harford County resident who was eating lunch with her 5-year-old son at the McDonald's next to Port Discovery, said, "If you give a kid money for lunch, what are they gonna buy? They're gonna get the stuff that tastes good to them; they want the greasy french fries."
Sun staff writer Kim Hart contributed to this article.