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Mascots are fascinating. They have many of the biographic features of actual people (or at least of celebrities) glommed together with some of the endearing qualities of animals or natural entities…and yet they are completely ersatz. Teams of marketers, advertising executives, and other suchlike sharkish folk invent mascots as tools to manipulate us for their own ends. The results of this unholy nexus can often result in a bizarre plunge into the uncanny. As an example, let’s look at the deeply disconcerting career of “Mac Tonight” the crooning moon from the late eighties who (which?) attempted to sell McDonald’s to baby boomers as a good option for a dinner restaurant.
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Mac Tonight was made to cash in on 50s music nostalgia among Baby Boomers. He had a human body with a stylized moon head (with an elongated chin and overhanging forehead). A glasses-wearing musician, Mac sat at a piano on a cloud and played a bowdlerized version of “Mack the Knife” in which the original murder-themed lyrics were replaced with lyrics about, um, going to dinner at a fast food restaurant previously targeted mainly at children. Mac’s appearance was meant to distance him from Ronald, Grimace, Hamburgler, et al. and yet he also shared an obvious leitmotif with them. Because of a branding crossover, Mac somehow got tied to Nascar. Yet in 1989, Mac’s career was nipped in the bud by a lawsuit from the estate of Bobby Darin, the original composer of “Mack the Knife.” Although Bobby Darin himself originally took the concept and the music from a Brecht play about a footpad that raped and murdered people, Darin somehow toned down the dark gestic drama into smooth uptempo jazz. His heirs convincingly made this argument to a court and McDonald’s didn’t want to pay royalties.
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This should have been the end of Mac Tonight: he was obviously crafted wrongly from the very beginning (just look at his nightmarish features which evoke some sort of doofy demon from a Fred Savage movie) and yet Mac crawled back from corporate America’s dustbin. In 2007, a white supremacist named “farkle” used an online meme site to relaunch Mac as “Moon Man” a racist figurehead who rapped and danced and gave hate-speeches crafted with that creepy robotic text-to-speech software. In today’s increasingly debased political culture, Moon Man now has a steady gig endorsing the Ku Klux Klan, the president, police brutality, and violence against the LGBT community. He would probably easily win a house seat in Montana if he decided to run (or if he were, you know, real, in any way whatsoever).
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I am a space enthusiast and my middle name is “Mack”. Plus I like McDonald’s and came of age in the 80s, however Mac Tonight has always been distasteful to me (even before his off-brand second career as a goddamned white supremacist icon). Somehow the cartoonish fixed grin does not capture the beauty of the moon or the glamor of the post-war era in my heart. Yet equally obviously, Mac Tonight has something…some element that appeals to all sorts of people. After Mac’s launch “a 1987 survey by Ad Watch found that the number of consumers who recalled McDonald’s advertising before any other doubled from the previous month, and was higher than any company since the New Coke launch in 1985.” Was it Darin’s song? Was it love of astronomy or burgers? Were there elements of his sinister later career already present? I have no idea. Can anybody explain this or is the sheer randomness of this story the true source of Mac’s nocturnal power?
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"Happy" the Happy Meal (a fully owned, fully licensed creation of McDonald's)

“Happy” the Happy Meal (a fully owned, fully licensed creation of McDonald’s)

Today Ferrebeekeeper abjectly drops all discussion of space exploration, art, literature, zoology, and history in order to concentrate on the biggest trending topic of the day–a disquieting animated character who takes the form of a weird toothy box. What’s the story here? Well, it turns out that, McDonald’s, the globe-spanning fast-food eatery has introduced a new mascot, “Happy” a happy meal box who wants kids to eat their vegetables and yogurt. The internet is awash in jokes about Happy’s lurid color, ambiguous motivations, and his oh-so-human (and oh-so-large) teeth. Mascots have been a subject of great interest to me ever since the black-and-white TV introduced me to the McDonaldland gang when I was a bright nervous child so I feel like we can do better for Happy (well, better than Gawker’s boilerplate jokes at least) and unpackage some of his history.

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McDonald’s is an American restaurant (actually considering its name & its obsession with cheap beef and potatoes, maybe it’s Irish-American) which began in 1940 in California as a barbecue joint. After the Second World War it changed into a hamburger restaurant and then spread its wings to become the most successful chain restaurant in history. One of the important steps of its evolution into an international corporate hegemon was developing a colorful crew of mascot characters to sell burgers, fries, and, above all, “the McDonald’s brand” to impressionable children (like me!).

The McDonaldland Gang (from a 1973 book cover)

The McDonaldland Gang (from a 1973 book cover)

In the early 1970s, an advertising agency introduced a whole team of mascots collectively known as McDonaldland to the world. The concept was based on the drugged-up fantasy landscape of H.R. Pufnstuf (a surreal puppet show which has cast long delirious shadows over children’s programming ever since it aired). True to the source material, the original cast was a disquieting mélange of weird beings: Mayor McCheese, a corrupt bureaucrat whose head is made of a cheeseburger; Hamburglar, a muttering lunatic thief; and, of course, Ronald McDonald, the dangerous-looking clown prince of the anthropomorphized fast-food landscape.

Grimace

Grimace

Some of the characters were quickly revised. Grimace was originally a villainous purple octopus with a monomaniacal love for milkshakes. Unfortunately early consumer tests determined that children were terrified of the multi-armed abomination. Flummoxed ad-executives were prepared to rework the entire concept, when one perspicacious adman came up with a brainstorm characteristic of the industry. “Let’s just rip his arms off!” he said. So Grimace–whom many people doubtless think of as a mitochondria or a rhizome—is actually an octopus whose arms were amputated by drunken 1970s admen.

"Good-Bye to All That"

“Good-Bye to All That”

The McDonaldland gang hit their heyday in the 1980s, when they were everywhere. Figures were abruptly retired (like poor Captain Cook) or changed, while new ones such as Birdie the breakfast bird made sudden appearances. Yet times change, and contemporary McDonald’s is trying to put McDonaldland behind them. Ronald McDonald has kept his position as a figurehead (much like Mickey Mouse) and the other characters sometimes appear in weathered murals or old playground equipment, but today’s advertising concentrates on pseudo-healthy communities of friends eating together and “lovin’ it”.

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The happy meal, however, continues to attract children with its colorful bag and complimentary toy. It also continues to attract regulators and litigation, so McDonald’s swung into action and created Happy. The animated box started out in the minors—France and Latin America–where he (it?) attained sufficient success to leap to the American market this month.

These forms of Happy never made it out of France: McDonald's does not need two mascot controversies at once

These forms of Happy never made it out of France: McDonald’s does not need two mascot controversies at once

With his loopy eyes, boxy form, and infinite hungry maw, Happy seems like he could almost be a throwback to the McDonaldland era. Yet he is patently a computer animation rather than a human-inhabited puppet. Additionally his putative raison d’être is to convince kids to pursue healthier eating habits. According to McDonald’s own press release:

McDonald’s today introduced “Happy,” a new animated Happy Meal character that brings fun and excitement to kids’ meals while also serving as an ambassador for balanced and wholesome eating. Happy will be introduced nationwide May 23, and will encourage kids to enjoy fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy and wholesome beverages such as water or juice.

That certainly sounds admirable, but adults take one look at Happy and shudder. Moreover his true purpose is obvious to us (after all we have spent a lifetime eating under the golden arches): he is obviously meant to sell McDonald’s products to kids. It’s easy to be cynical about him—but I now look back at the strained look on my parents’ faces as they endured the burglars, killer clowns, evil octopi, and pirates of my youth with new understanding. Corporate mascots are friendly monsters who entice children to buy sundry unnecessary goods and services. Kids should get used to brushing them off as soon as possible. It is fine preparation for adult life when the corporate monsters take off their googly eyes and apply their coercion more directly.

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