We Need to Talk About Ronald
McDonald's has updated its coffee. Its architecture. Its beef. But one thing stays mired in the past...
In 2011, investors showed a greater appetite for McDonald’s than any other company in the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Over the last two years, the fast food giant’s stock has nearly doubled. As shares hit $100.82 during the last week of December, a new all-time high, executives at McDonald’s corporate headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois were no doubt toasting one another with extra-large triple-thick shakes. The one possible holdout? A 49-year-old former company superstar who has seen his once-pivotal role in the chain’s fortunes shrink like the waistline of a Biggest Loser contestant.
In 2012, Ronald McDonald is essentially a clown without a country. McDonald’s is in the midst of an ambitious, multi-billion-dollar global makeover; its middle-aged mascot has no place in it. In an April 2011 investor’s call, McDonald’s CEO Jim Skinner announced that the company was planning to reimage 2,200 outlets around the world that year. Five months later, in September 2011, McDonald’s revealed it was committing $1 billion to Canada alone, with a goal of upgrading all 1,100 of its restaurants there by the end of 2012. In France, it has enlisted the help of Parisian designer Patrick Norguet to give its most forward-looking outlets the futuristic appearance of a 1960s airport.
The ultimate goal of all this transformation is tastefulness. Under the stewardship of fast food visionary Ray Kroc, McDonald’s existed as a utilitarian factory for food preparation and eating. Cheeseburgers were manufactured in quick and tidy fashion behind the counter and consumed in quick and tidy fashion in a fluorescent, condiment-hued dining area that had all the charm and homey touches of a prison cafeteria. Tables were made of fiberglass. Chairs were bolted to the floor. Durability and easy maintenance took precedence over ambiance. “We made sure that no McDonald’s became a hangout,” Kroc told Time in 1973. “We didn’t allow cigarette machines, newspaper racks, not even a payphone.”
Now, however, Starbucks has replaced Sing Sing as the model to which McDonald’s aspires. “People eat with their eyes first,” explained McDonald’s president and COO Don Thompson in an October 2010 Fast Company feature. “If you have a restaurant that is appealing, contemporary, and relevant both from the street and interior, the food tastes better.”
To this end, the newly reimaged stores feature understated stone exteriors, hardwood floors and wood-slatted ceilings, designer seating, and bold, oversized graphics. Aesthetically delicious lighting fixtures infuse menu items like the Chipotle BBQ Snack Wrap and Premium Southwest Salads with subtle notes of cosmopolitan chic. “Linger zones” equipped with couches, free Wi-Fi, and flat-screen TVs encourage extended lounging.
Amidst the sleek walnut paneling and modernist dining chairs, however, the chain’s longtime mascot looks less like a crown prince than a red-headed stepchild. While nutritional reformers constantly accuse Ronald McDonald of hawking food to children that’s too tasty for their own good, no one ever accuses him of being too tasteful. Garish? Sure. Sentimental and pandering? Absolutely. The cartoonish, supersized embodiment of Mickey D’s extra salty, extra sweet caricatures of food? Yeah, that pretty much nails it. But authentic, artisanal, or any of the other qualities that today’s relentlessly discerning consumers value and that McDonald’s is trying to convey with its new, more idiosyncratic and localized store designs? Nope, not really.
As McDonald’s evolves into a purveyor of middlebrow salads and aspirational smoothies, Ronald has been caught flat-footed, his size 14 1/2 clown shoes stuck in fast food’s tacky, proletarian past. McDonald’s new palette consists of terra cotta, olive, and other well-curated shades you might actually find in nature, or at least the café area of a Whole Foods Market. According to Fast Company, Denis Weil — McDonald’s vice president of concept and design — champions “total remodels” over less extensive efforts. So far, however, the chain’s total remodel has yet to transform Ronald in any substantive way. In 2012, as the chain’s most ambitious remodels begin to resemble pages ripped out of a Design Within Reach catalog, Ronald is just as bright, just as striped, just as clownish as ever.
When organizations like Corporate Accountability International accuse Ronald of predatory marketing to children and urge McDonald’s to fire him, the chain’s top brass stand by their clown. “He is a force for good!” CEO Jim Skinner exclaimed at a shareholders’ meeting in 2010. “He communicates effectively with children and families around balanced, active lifestyles.”
According to the Associated Press, it was around 2004 that McDonald’s started presenting Ronald in this fashion. In the wake of exposes such as Fast Food Nation and Supersize Me — which tied McDonald’s to growing obesity rates, especially among children — McDonald’s dubbed Ronald a “balanced, active lifestyles ambassador” and showed him training for various Olympic sports in a new series of commercials. In the years that followed, however, critics continue to assail McDonald’s food and its marketing practices, and in response, McDonald’s started giving Ronald fewer and fewer opportunities to shine.
By early 2011, in fact, his role in the company had become so marginalized that a new series of commercials featuring him were presented as a resurrection of sorts, proof that the chain had not permanently sidelined their old warhorse. But while the spots showed him dancing, playing basketball and soccer, and generally moving around outdoor locales, there was nary a McNugget in site. “Ronald’s job is to promote joy, fun and the spontaneity of the brand,” explained Marlena Peleo-Lazar, McDonald’s global chief creative officer, in a USA Today article about the ads.
Demoted upwards to Chief Happiness Officer, Ronald has roughly the same job duties as First Lady Michelle Obama. He serves as the public face of Ronald McDonald House Charities, which provides housing to the families of hospitalized children. He promotes literacy. He engages in brief bouts of highly publicized physical activity. But his position with McDonald’s is equally defined by what he’s not allowed to do on behalf of the chain he helped turn into an international superpower. “He does not hawk food,” Jim Skinner insisted at the 2010 shareholder’s meeting. “He never does a hard sell,” reiterated Marlena Peleo-Lazar in the USA Today piece.
This wasn’t always the case, of course. In 1963, when the chain introduced their new mascot in a regional TV spot, it referred to him as “Ronald McDonald, the Hamburger-Eatingest clown.”As depicted by future Today weatherman Willard Scott, Ronald was silly, effusive, almost drunk on the intoxicating effect of giant milkshakes and potatoes fried in beef tallow. A “magic tray” attached to his waist ensured an infinite source of McDonald’s fare. Another heavily laden tray of food served as his hat. The vertical stripes of his overalls, however slimming they were supposed to be, did little to disprove the notion that he was the hamburger-eatingest clown in the world. “I like to do everything boys and girls like to do,” he exclaimed. “Especially when it comes to eating delicious McDonald’s hamburgers. My magic tray here keeps me well supplied.”
Willard Scott only had a short run with the company. According to Eric Schlosser’s children’s book, Chew on This, Ray Kroc fired him for being too fat in 1965. But Ronald was a different story ‘— he would emerge as one of McDonald’s most important ingredients. In 1967, McDonald’s named him its official spokesperson. That same year, the New York Times reported that McDonald’s was the “only business of its kind with network commercials on the Saturday morning kiddie cartoon marathon.” The spots featured Ronald “soar[ing] through the air on a flying hamburger and compet[ing] with a bad guy named Mr. Muscle for a McDonald’s meal.” Usually, the Times reported, Ronald won.
The late ’60s were a period of incredible growth for McDonald’s. Its sales jumped from $170 million in 1965 to $1.03 billion in 1972, when it surpassed the U.S. Army as the nation’s largest dispenser of meals. It got that big by thinking small. Newspaper reports from the early 1970s reveal that McDonald’s headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois had a few surprisingly adult touches, including a 9-foot, 700- gallon waterbed with burgundy suede headrests in a special enclave known as the “think tank.” But when company bigwigs convened there for “executive conferences,” their out-of-the-box epiphanies involved kids. In 1971, the company’s research showed that in three out of four cases, children decided where their families would eat out. “Our move to the suburbs was a conscious effort to go for the family business,” a McDonald’s executive told Time in 1973. “That meant going after the kids. We decided to use television, so we created our own character, Ronald McDonald.”
The same year that McDonald’s realized kids were the real drivers of its business, its new advertising agency, Needham Harper & Steers, invented McDonaldland, a fantasy realm for Ronald to rule over that ultimately evolved into a real-world playground area in many of the chain’s stores. While Ray Kroc applied an almost military-like industrialism to the McDonald’s empire, relentlessly figuring out new ways to make ketchup more efficient, Ronald helped pioneer the idea that even low-budget, utilitarian dining could be an entertainment event, a bonding experience, as emotionally satisfying as a day at the circus. This, of course, was the hardest hard sell of them all: Ronald was the entrepreneurial special sauce that helped McDonald’s position itself as a place where warm family togetherness could be purchased just as readily and reliably as hot apple pies.
Which is not to say that Ronald wasn’t emphatically hands-on when it came to McDonald’s food. As early as the 1980s, McDonald’s seemed determined to present its prepubescent customer base as dynamic, healthy individuals rather than sedentary, pre-diabetic sloths. It depicted tots engaged in vigorous, hand-clapping games and proprietary dances. But the reward for performing such activities were trayloads of burgers and giant bags of fries. Ronald was there to deliver the bounty.
Now, however, Ronald shows less interest in food than an anorexic with a bad case of stomach flu. He doesn’t even touch the lattes, cappuccinos, and other coffee drinks that have helped the company boost its profits in recent years. But while he’s no longer able to perform his old role, McDonald’s seems unwilling to part ways with him entirely. He made a lot of people in the McDonald’s empire millionaires, after all. To get rid of him now wouldn’t just be an act of contrition for erstwhile marketing sins — it’d be a stab in the back.
Given that McDonald’s is stuck with him, you’d think the company might try to reimagine him along with the rest of its décor. Indeed, it’s pouring billions into making its dining chairs more relevant to today’s hungry restaurant patrons, and yet it’s got a corporate mascot who can’t say anything about its Angus Deluxe Burger or even its apple dippers. In essence, Ronald is now the equivalent of an NFL quarterback who won’t play on Sundays or a porn star who refuses to do sex scenes.
In addition, the chain’s efforts to reimage itself also give it its best chance in years to make Ronald resonate with contemporary consumers. Since the ultimate goal is to make McDonald’s appear more tasteful, more premium-crafted, more local, why not have Ronald trade in his ridiculous red clown shoes for a pair of Quoddy Maine Woodsman boots? Why not get Mark McNairy or some other deft updater of classic American workwear to give Ronald’s droopy overalls a more tailored and judiciously curated look – a little heavyweight gingham chambray could do wonders! Then, give Ronald crash courses in phytoremediation and rooftop beekeeping and rebrand him as Old McDonald, urban farmer.
In this new persona, Ronald could help position McDonald’s as a genuinely local brand with literal roots in the community. He could turn the preternaturally enlightened tots of Park Slope and Noe Valley into loyal customers for life by winning them over with tales of all the food miles McDonald’s has eliminated by growing heirloom tomatoes in downtown alleys and abandoned city lots. He could convey the brand’s commitment to traditional American foodways by only hawking heritage hen McNuggets. He could boost its authenticity and revitalize neighborhood economies by hard-selling Happy Meals featuring hand-made trinkets from local Etsy artisans.
Alas, that McDonald’s is unlikely to do any of this any time soon suggests the true horror of Ronald’s plight. He’s not just a casualty of the fast food giant’s commitment to radical change. He’s also a casualty of its commitment to stasis. • 9 January 2012
Greg Beato is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Follow @GregBeato on Twitter.
Photograph by sfxeric / CC BY 2.0