Prepared Foods October 3, 2005 e-newsletter

Is it Ronald McDonald or Rhona? The gaudy clown who symbolizes fast food has been replaced by a sleek woman in Japanese advertisements in the latest attempt by the world's biggest restaurant chain to improve its image.

Instead of baggy trousers and outsize shoes, there are leggings and high heels.

All that is left of the traditional Ronald, who made his debut 42 years ago, are the muted stripes and red-and yellow livery in which the new model is draped.

Disturbingly for the all-American Ronald, websites are speculating as to whether the lady in question is actually a cross-dressing "metrosexual" male.

Beacon Communications, the Japanese agency behind the McMakeover, said that the red, white and yellow colors were so distinctive that it was these that now defined the brand rather than Ronald himself.

Faced with growing concerns over obesity and the negative portrayal of its products in the film SuperSize Me, McDonald's has questioned whether even its famous Golden Arches have become a liability.

Although the 30,000 restaurants generated 13 billion pounds ($23 billion) last year, stronger revenues in the U.S. have offset weak sales in Japan, Britain and Germany.

Strategists at the Illinois-based company, which celebrated its 50th birthday this year, blamed the laughing clown. First, Ronald McDonald was put on a diet for a campaign aimed at mothers and young adults to re-brand the company as a provider of fruit, vegetables and healthy meals.

A slimmer Ronald donned a (yellow-and-red) tracksuit for a global advertising campaign in which he urged children to take up snowboarding and other active pursuits. He juggles vegetables in one ad, in which hamburgers are nowhere to be seen, and joins in synchronized swimming.

Tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams were signed up for a campaign promoting healthier living, and pop stars Destiny's Child and Justin Timberlake also became public faces of the brand.

The Japanese campaign has been credited with returning customers to McDonald's outlets and won praise from designers and fashion experts.

However, the gender switch is deemed too radical a change for a global audience, and the clown Ronald, albeit slimmer, is not being retired.

Source: The Times (London)