Ah, Ronald McDonald. What a character! No trip to McDonald’s would be complete without seeing its mascot in some form around the restaurant. Yep, he was everywhere in the past. But then, a few years ago, the iconic clown seemingly disappeared without a trace. Why? Well, we’ve got the answers – and they might shock you into tossing your fries flying across the table.
We don’t know about you, but we always get a warm, fuzzy feeling whenever Ronald’s name comes up.
He’s a nostalgic figure, not just because his face is plastered across the fast food chain, but because McDonald’s utilized the clown in several exciting ways back in the day.
Alongside his television appearances advertising the chain, Ronald made his comic book debut in the 1970s. The clown’s run was short-lived, yet the Charlton Comics set can fetch a pretty penny today.
For instance, a copy of the first issue was valued at over $110 on eBay at the time of writing.
Ronald was eventually given a helping hand with his central advertising role, thanks to introducing some new buddies. Yep, we’re referring to the McDonaldland crew. Remember them?
The likes of Grimace, Birdie the Early Bird, The McNugget Buddies, Mayor McCheese, and The Hamburglar were very recognizable.
So with his new buddies in tow, Ronald and the McDonaldland crew dominated the restaurant brand across the 1980s and 1990s. Plus, McDonald’s created several cartoons with the group front and center.
But, of course, they were exclusive to the chain, meaning you couldn’t see them anywhere else.
Oh, and we can’t forget about Happy Meals. As any kid from that era will tell you, Ronald’s face always seemed to greet you on the iconic packaging.
But those carefree days for the famous clown are pretty much over now. McDonald’s eventually put him out to pasture back in 2016. Just sad. Sad.
Hard to believe it's been that long, right? From the outside looking in, McDonald's seemed to be making a bold move by dumping Ronald.
Fast Food Nation writer Eric Schlosser claimed that just one mythological figure in pop culture was more famous than the clown – Santa Claus. Wow!
We wonder if McDonald’s could’ve predicted the mascot’s meteoric rise in popularity when he was first conceived. Even the most optimistic person might’ve struggled.
And that’s got us thinking – why was Ronald created back then? What prompted his emergence? Well, we need to switch our focus to 1963.
Because around then, a different clown was winning the hearts of kids across the United States. We’re talking about Bozo the Clown. Recognize that name?
The character became a mainstay on the small screen following his debut at the end of the 1940s. He was everywhere at the time, appearing in numerous TV projects.
Much like McDonald’s, Bozo was seen as a franchise. That meant he could essentially star in various television programs created by channels in different communities throughout America.
Everyone seemed to have their version of the famous clown. So that brings us to Washington, D.C...
The nation’s capital aired a Bozo program in the early 1960s. And one of the people who helped behind the scenes was a guy named Barry Klein. He plied his trade as an advertising executive.
But that wasn’t the only place Klein had a job – he also lent his expertise to a Washington-based McDonald’s franchise.
And that helped Klein come up with an exciting idea. According to The Baltimore Sun newspaper, he told the local fast food franchise to get some adverts on the air during Bozo’s slot.
That way, they’d be able to get the attention of watching youngsters. Klein's suggestion was heeded in the end.
Everything changed in 1963, though, because the local station pulled the plug on Bozo’s program. So much for the ads! Yet Klein wasn’t disheartened. Far from it. Instead, he devised a different plan of action.
Yep, the executive believed that the door was open for McDonald’s to introduce a new clown to the public. Their own.
So Klein got in touch with the man who portrayed Washington’s Bozo – a fellow named Willard Scott.
And as to The Baltimore Sun, the latter suggested that this new character could be called Ronald McDonald. Thus Scott jumped into the clown’s costume and started to feature in commercials.
Yet this early incarnation of Ronald was very different from the one we’re used to. Because he had a cup for a nose, a hamburger belt, and wore a hat that doubled as a tray of fast food.
It was a genuinely bizarre sight! Yet the act turned out to be a big hit in Washington, which led to something bigger.
Because McDonald’s showed a genuine interest in naming Ronald its de facto mascot nationwide, that was just three years later. There was one issue, though.
According to the Insider website, the chain’s advertisers toyed with the idea of dropping the clown gimmick and switching to an astronaut or cowboy.
We’re struggling to picture Ronald in either of those guises! But McDonald’s stuck with the clown persona and eventually rolled him out across the country in 1966.
His look was also updated to the one we all know and love today, the red and yellow clown. The rest was history. Quite a journey, right?
So that leaves us with the big question — why was Ronald dumped in 2016? How could McDonald's shelve a character that captured the public's hearts for over 50 years?
There are a few explanations behind the decision, ranging from the understandable to the downright bizarre.
Well, 2003 was the start of it all.
Because Ronald may well have been on the chopping block even at that stage, his McDonaldland buddies were ruthlessly cut that year, as the chain went in a different direction, according to the website CBR.com. And it planned to become more appealing to older customers.
So the famous "I'm lovin' it" ads arrived in 2003. Somehow, though, Ronald avoided the same fate that befell the likes of Birdie and The Hamburglar, earning a stay of execution.
Yet he couldn't relax for long. The clown's image started to stick out as McDonald's continued to change.
Now fast-forward to 2012. Because during that year, McDonald’s began to redesign all of its restaurants as the chain aimed to keep up with the times.
So that meant the interiors underwent significant changes, introducing things like the touch-screen menus. And it didn’t stop there, either.
Even before the restaurants were given modern facelifts, McDonald’s wanted to mirror a coffeehouse aesthetic. We’re talking comfy chairs, free internet access, all that.
Thanks to the work being done, it was on the verge of pulling off the look. Oh, and the menu helped, too. Healthier items were now available, alongside McCafe coffee.
So unfortunately for Ronald, he just didn’t fit in with this updated look.
As Baker Street Advertising’s Bob Dorfman told Bloomberg in 2011, “He kind of represents the old McDonald’s, with the high-fat content foods that are kind of falling out of favor. It’s clear that McDonald’s is advertising coffee, they’re not advertising burgers.”
Thus Ronald took a backseat going forward. Without wanting to sound too harsh, McDonald’s was growing up, and the clown couldn’t follow them. It was like a teenager putting their old toys away.
We feel for the guy! But that’s not the only reason why he started to disappear during that spell.
Because, jumping back a little, 2010 had already been a tough year for Ronald. More people were becoming aware of just how unhealthy some of McDonald’s items really were.
As CBR.com notes, fast food’s general link to America’s weight problem was firmly under the spotlight. And that was bad news for the mascot.
Why? Well, consider this. Who was Ronald likely to appeal to in the chain’s ads? Children, right? Several groups recognized that as well, like Corporate Accountability International.
This particular body operated out of Boston, Massachusetts, and it believed that the iconic clown was encouraging youngsters to eat the unhealthy stuff at McDonald’s.
The group first raised those concerns back in 2010, reported The Chicago Tribune newspaper. They stuck at it, too, advising McDonald’s to drop Ronald over the next few years.
It even got to the stage where people from the body were attending get-togethers with the company’s higher-ups to share their views. The mascot was a marked man!
The newspaper claims that throughout those different get-togethers, Corporate Accountability International maintained the same line of criticism. Quite simply, it said Ronald was “the Joe Camel of fast food.”
Yes, we know what you’re thinking – who’s Joe Camel? Well, he’s also an old mascot, but his brand was very different to McDonald’s.
The cartoon-drawn Joe represented Camel Cigarettes for a decent spell, you see. The character was first sketched back in the mid-1970s, born from the brand’s famous logo. But he didn’t appear in America’s marketing of the products until 1988.
Yet no one could’ve predicted what happened after that. Because he sparked one hell of a storm.
Regardless of the brand Joe was representing, his animated appearance captured the attention of plenty of kids. So it was realized, according to CBR.com, that he was inadvertently encouraging them to smoke.
That quickly caught the eye of the public at the time, leading to a huge moment in 1997.
With a growing pile of legal threats to sort out, as well as interest from the United States government, Camel decided to retire Joe that year.
Now we know that smoking a cigarette and eating fast food isn’t in the same ballpark, but we can understand the point Corporate Accountability International was making. In its mind, Ronald was promoting something kids shouldn’t touch.
So Ronald was pushed into the background for that reason, too, yet he still wasn’t actually “retired.” That didn’t happen until 2016.
But the decision itself came about after America experienced one of the most bizarre crazes of recent times. Sorry if this next part opens up some old wounds!
Remember the “creepy clown sightings”? If you don’t, here’s a quick rundown. The idea behind the craze was pretty simple in a twisted sort of way. Individuals would dress up as the aforementioned characters and then proceed to terrify people in unexpected locations. Sometimes at night.
The United States was awash with these incidents that year. And the cops were getting called, too, so they weren’t simply harmless pranks.
And it only got worse as time went on. Before the public knew it, some of the clowns had weapons on their person as well. It was like a horror film had come to life.
So Ronald found himself in a tricky position, sadly. His brethren were being vilified thanks to the actions of those people.
Thus a representative from McDonald’s released an online message in October 2016. Terri Hickey wrote, “McDonald’s and franchisees in the local markets are mindful of the current climate around clown sightings in communities.
And as such [we’re] being thoughtful in respect to Ronald McDonald’s participation in community events for the time being.”
Just like that, Ronald’s time in the spotlight was over. What a sad way to end it. So that’s got us wondering – did McDonald’s have another mascot waiting in the wings to take his place?
Well, a couple of years before the clown’s official retirement, the chain did introduce someone in May 2014.
Yep, McDonald’s gave the world a glimpse of a character named Happy. Yet there weren’t too many smiles when people saw the figure. It was just a living Happy Meal box, boasting gangly arms and short legs.
The face was also a little unflattering, with users online taking shots at its “creepy” look.
But while Happy filled the mascot void after Ronald was dropped, the latter hasn’t been completely phased out of existence. Yep, his name and image live on in two different ways now.
One of them is through the Ronald McDonald House Charities organization. This group offers places of residence to folks whose kids are in hospital.
According to the organization’s official website, Ronald McDonald House Charities aids more than 6,000 families every 12 months. That’s a tremendous effort, wouldn’t you agree?
As for the second way that Ronald’s still around, you only need to watch the famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. You’re sure to spot him there.
So Ronald remains McDonald’s character of choice for the annual gathering. The clown had his own huge balloon in 2019, before a gust of wind caused it to hit a tree and deflate. How unfortunate!
Then the following year he appeared again – with a timely face-covering. Could the beloved mascot make a comeback beyond that? Never say never.