“The smile known around the world.” Ronald McDonald has been the face of the McDonalds restaurant chain since 1963. In terms of recognition among school-aged children in the United States, he is second only to Santa Claus. But, how did a clown come to be so closely associated with hamburgers? It began with veteran weatherman, Williard Scott. Before his weatherman days, Scott was a local radio personality in Washington, D.C. who played “Bozo the Clown” from 1959 through 1962 on the highly successful children’s program. When “Bozo the Clown” went off of the air, Scott was working for Oscar Goldstein and John Gibson, owners of two Washington, D.C. area McDonald’s franchises. Both Goldstein and Gibson felt this was the time to capitalize on the popularity of “Bozo the Clown,” so they had their ad agency create the character Ronald McDonald to star in three tv commercials for McDonalds. Scott was hired by Goldstein and Gibson to portray the character in these initial ads.
Over the years, many actors have portrayed the happy-go-lucky clown, including King Moody, an American actor who’s resume includes Get Smart, Bonanza, and Dragnet. Ronald has not only been used to market McDonalds to children for decades, he has worked tirelessly visiting children in hospitals, as well as attending regular events spreading messages on safety, literacy, anti-bullying and the importance of being active. He is also the face of Ronald McDonald Houses, a place where parents stay overnight while visiting their children in nearby chronic care facilities.
Because the intended target audience is children, Ronald McDonald has come under scrutiny in recent years due to unhealthy food options at McDonalds restaurants. He’s often referred to as the “Joe Camel” of fast food. Beginning in 2010, the Corporate Accountability International in Boston made a call for McDonalds to retire the clown in the wake of the childhood obesity epidemic. But the international restaurant chain declared they would not retire their mascot because, CEO Jim Skinner explained, Ronald McDonald was “an ambassador for good”. In 2014, McDonalds new CEO Don Thompson agreed that the clown does not encourage children to eat unhealthy foods. He’s merely been such a successful mascot for the company because he represents the “fun and happiness” of the McDonalds brand.
While the Corporate Accountability International has been unable to retire him mainly due to the fact that he is considered a national icon, the recent clown hysteria in the US leading up to Halloween 2016 threatens to do him in after more than 50 years. In early October 2016, the McDonalds corporation released a statement saying that due to the “current climate around clown sightings in communities,” they would limit the public appearances of their famous clown. Though no official word has come from the corporation, with the reduction of appearances in marketing and promotion for McDonalds over recent years, many wonder if this is actually the end of Ronald McDonald as the face of McDonalds restaurants. Let’s hope not.