Every hero needs a villain. That’s why Ronald McDonald finally got the foil he deserved in 1971, with the emergence of the Hamburglar, a Zorro-like crusader who would stop at nothing to steal and hoard his favorite McDonald’s products all for himself. In terms of fast food mascots, the Hamburglar is one of the most recognizable, as well as one of the most mischievous. He may lack the majesty of the Burger King or the youth of Wendy’s redheaded girl, but he has something the others lack—a hunger. Even if his attempts at burger thievery are often bungled, there’s something admirable about his relentless and Sisyphean pursuit of a cheeseburger.
So how did this bizarre character come to be? In the ’70s, McDonald’s hired the marketing firm Needham, Harper & Steers to help promote its new “playplaces” attached to some of its restaurants. These spaces were essentially indoor playgrounds featuring ball pits, slides, and other equipment for its youngest customers to enjoy after loading up on burgers and fries. The new advertising campaign featured Ronald McDonald (who had been around for nearly a decade prior), as well as a host of other characters who all lived in a magical fast food universe known simply as “McDonaldland.” These characters included Mayor McCheese, the Fry Kids, Grimace, and the infamous Hamburglar, all of whom would prove wildly successful, bringing further recognition to a brand that was already ubiquitous to a younger generation.
When he was first introduced, the Hamburglar was an older gentleman with a pointy nose and gray hair. He also wore a white t-shirt with the cryptic phrase “Lone Jogger,” which he was sometimes also referred to. That nickname was never explicitly explained, though one can presume he was simply running alone in the pursuit of more burgers. He also spoke a gibberish language which was translated by his McDonaldland compatriot, Captain Crook.
While the character’s design evolved in the decades that followed, he always remained an impish presence with the same eponymous motivation. By the 1980s the Hamburglar was still a regular mainstay in commercials and promotional materials, however it was around this time that he received a major makeover. Sporting a short hat, bright red hair, a tie, and gloves, the character became less a troll and more of a child. He was now a Dennis the Menace-like trickster, one who was just as interested in burgers, but less interested in stealing them. His previously unintelligible mutterings were also replaced with an actual catchphrase. “Robble robble!” became his rallying cry. It was this image that would became his most familiar.
While the McDonaldland gang would persist for decades, these characters, with the exception of Ronald McDonald, were eventually phased out of marketing campaigns in the early 2000s. However the Hamburglar did come back for one final theft in 2015. In an effort to promote their new Sirloin Third Pound burger, the company revealed a more adult take on the classic character. This version of the Hamburglar was decked out in a trench coat and fedora and looked more like something out of a hipster’s nightmare than a child’s imagination. While successful in garnering plenty of attention and eye rolls, this campaign quickly died out. The Hamburglar’s current whereabouts may be unknown but he’ll live on in our hearts and stomachs every time we pass the golden arches.
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Header image courtesy of McDonald's.