Mixed feelings over clown's charms

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The Independent Online
THE MARKETING is so compelling and so precisely targeted that few small children can resist the racks of balloons and free gifts. Parents refuse to take them to McDonald's at their peril, writes Will Bennett.

Yet, 20 years after the first McDonald's opened in Britain, the world's most successful fast food chain still arouses powerful mixed emotions among adults, now highlighted by the High Court action.

On the one hand, they are cheap, spotlessly clean and invariably popular places to take children. On the other, there is resentment against American cultural imperialism, a typically British dislike of anything so ruthlessly organised and successful, and claims that the chain exploits the Third World and is conditioning people to junk food.

Such claims have always drawn a vigorous response from McDonald's lawyers and it is this which has led to the libel action against the environmental campaigners Dave Morris and Helen Steel.

It is a David and Goliath contest in which McDonald's has no prospect of recovering more than nominal damages and which could cost it more than pounds 1m in legal fees. But it wants to keep its reputation as spotless as its restaurants.

Cleanliness is a passion inherited from Ray Kroc, who in 1954 became the first franchisee appointed by Mac and Dick McDonald, and who in 1961 bought all rights from them. The staff handbook is still prefaced by the words: 'Cleanliness is like a magnet drawing customers to McDonald's' In Britain the magnet now enables the company to sell 1 million hamburgers a day.

Of McDonald's 14,000 outlets world-wide, 521 are in Britain. Their turnover in this country last year was pounds 586m and the profit before interest was pounds 75m.

The atmosphere is part children's playground, part worthy community project. Last year's annual report noted that 'our magic clown, Ronald McDonald, helps to communicate vital messages to children on subjects like 'stranger danger', 'water safety' and 'bicycle safety' '.

But not everyone is charmed by the magic. Residents of trendy Hampstead, north London, waged a fierce but unsuccessful campaign to prevent McDonald's from opening a branch which they felt would lower the tone of the area.

The defendants in the libel action claimed in court that McDonald's has used legal threats to bully its critics and that its public face is a fraud. In the sober surroundings of the High Court, Ronald McDonald has never been more serious.

(Photograph omitted)