Is Ronald McDonald the new Joe Camel? That’s the question posed in an Ad Age story exploring how fast-food mascots have become targets for antiobesity activists. The question of whether Ronald is flogging a product as deadly as tobacco raises questions about the future of fast-food advertising (will it follow tobacco ads into extinction?) and how much credit mascots really deserve for brainwashing little minds and tastewashing little palates. But one question the story doesn’t address is why McDonald’s chose such a creepy icon to sell hamburgers in the first place, and why the chain has stuck with him for five decades.
Few commercials pack the fantastically freaky punch of that 1960s spot starring Willard Scott as the clown, roller-skating through a park and plying a young boy with free burgers to prove that he is, in fact, Ronald McDonald, and not just some random perv. With his striped pajamas, red face paint, and paper cup strapped to the end of his nose, Ronald looks less like a boy’s best friend than a parent’s worst nightmare. You half expect the commercial to end in a parked van.
Although Ronald soon lost the paper cup and traded his straw hair for the kind of sculpted bouffant Liberace would have killed for, he’s never been able to overcome his greatest handicap: the fact that he’s a clown. As Stephen King well knows, there’s nothing like penciled-in eyebrows and a demonic grin to inspire visions of grisly death.
McDonald’s, of course, doesn’t quite see it like that, particularly now that it’s using Ronald more to promote literacy and exercise than to sell Happy Meals. And when it comes down to it, most fast-food mascots are creepy. Even those early McDonald’s ads can’t compare with the surreal specter of Jack, the Jack in the Box spokesthing with a human body, giant ping-pong-ball head, blank eyes, and an eery smile. It’s hard to imagine the boardroom conversations that led to Jack’s creation, though I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point some exec uttered the sentence, “He should look like he’s familiar with the taste of human flesh.”
While it’s hard to fathom why fast-food companies would find allure in the grotesque, you could argue that their products have gotten the mascots they deserve: Who better to push disturbingly unnatural food than a disturbingly unnatural clown? Call it truth in advertising.