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The Ronald McDonald balloon makes its way along the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York


Jim Skinner, McDonald's Corp.'s chief executive, forcefully defended the company's marketing practices on Thursday, denying the hamburger chain was pushing unhealthy food on children.

McDonald's has been under renewed pressure to overhaul advertising in the wake of a U.S. government proposal last month asking food companies to curb marketing that entices children with products high in saturated fat, trans fat, sugars and sodium. On Wednesday, more than 600 health institutions and professionals signed a letter published in U.S. newspapers urging McDonald's to drop campaigns including the Ronald McDonald clown.

"Ronald McDonald is going nowhere," Mr. Skinner told shareholders at the company's annual meeting. "[He]is an ambassador of McDonald's and he is an ambassador for good."

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Corporate Accountability International, a watchdog group, has been leading the campaign against McDonald's. At the meeting, the group helped propose a resolution that would require McDonald's to undertake a study to assess its "health footprint" and the costs of its marketing that is targeted at children.

"Advertising is at the heart of McDonald's business model, with annual expenditures reaching $2-billion," the group wrote in its letter. "Marketing can no longer be ignored as a significant part of this massive problem." The resolution garnered just 6 per cent approval from McDonald's shareholders.

Dr. Donald Ziegler, of the American Medical Association, told Mr. Skinner at the meeting: "McDonald's and its competitors have stolen a page from Big Tobacco's and Big Alcohol's playbook when it comes to the marketing of a dangerous product to children. How similar are Joe Camel, the Marlboro Man, Spud McKinsey or Ronald McDonald?"

Mr. Skinner noted the philanthropic work that McDonald's does through the Ronald McDonald charity and maintained that the company is offering choices to its customers, not forcing them to eat unhealthy food.

"We believe in the democratic process and we play in the democratic process," Mr. Skinner said. "This is about the personal, individual right to choose."

McDonald's has been promoting healthier options including salads, oatmeal and fruit smoothies, but critics remain unsatisfied.

In spite of promises that Ronald McDonald will remain central to McDonald's, analysts and investors have noticed the mascot is less prominent in some of its advertising and in its remodelled restaurants.

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Asked why the clown had been absent from recent shareholder meetings, Mr. Skinner said he was busy doing noble work and could not make it in through thickets of protesters.

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