The McStory Behind the Iconic Fast-Food Clown: Ronald McDonald

Some people find Ronald McDonald charming, and others find him creepy. Whichever way you feel about the red-haired McDonald’s mascot, the burger-lovin’ clown made his debut back in the 60s and brought cheap, fast-food to families all around the country. He was seen on television commercials, video games, merchandise, and, of course, the children’s charity, The Ronald McDonald House.

Ronald McDonald

Photo by Peter Brooker / Shutterstock

Thanks to the delicious greasy food, and child-friendly happy meals, McDonald’s became a household name, and Ronald has become one of the most beloved and recognizable characters in the world. He is even more recognizable than the symbol of the cross. However, the character has gone through a lot over the years. From branding and lawsuits to backlash and health concerns, these are some things you probably never knew about the red-nosed mascot. Plus, I added some interesting facts about the fast-food chain.

Without further ado, here are some fun facts about America’s favorite clown.

A Creepy Looking Clown

This is an unrecognizable version of the Ronald McDonald we all know and love. The original version of the clown was created by the renowned weatherman, Willard Scott. Scott actually appeared on TV as Bozo the Clown, but when the show stopped airing, McDonald’s asked him to create a character for their chain.

Willard Scott dressed as a clown with a cup on his nose and a meal on a tray which is connected to his belt

Willard Scott as the original Ronald McDonald. Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

However, that version of Ronald McDonald is far from the fun-loving red-headed clown we see today. The character was a creepy mixture of a clown and a food dispenser. I mean, what’s more, eerie than that paper cup nose and food trey as a hat? Believe it or not, this disturbing version of Ronald aired on TV for not one, but three commercials.

Fat Ronald Got Booted

Somehow, the creepy Ronald McDonald was a huge hit for the company that was ready to market the clown all over the country. But first, they wanted to redesign Ronald and brought in Michael “Coco” Polakovs, a famous Ringling Brothers circus performer. He was credited for creating Ronald’s yellow jumpsuit that we are more familiar with.

Michael “Coco” Polakovs as Ronald McDonald outside standing in front of a McDonald’s Hamburgers sign

Michael “Coco” Polakovs as Ronald McDonald. Source: Pinterest

So why did the company get rid of Scott? Ironically, the food-chain wanted the tall and slender Coco the Clown to serve French fries and milkshakes to the youth of America. Scott later told the Wall Street Journal, “That was a heartbreaker. I was too fat.” Luckily for Scott, he went on to have a successful career and served as the “Today Show” weatherman for 35 years.

The Struggles of Ronald McDonald

Actors who took on the role of Ronald McDonald tell a tale of the strict rules they need to follow to keep the clown up to corporate standards. Geoffrey Giuliano, who wore the red wig in the 70s, was reportedly uncomfortable telling kids that the burger came from his “magic hamburger patch” instead of cows.

Geoffrey Giuliano as Ronald McDonald with one dove on his shoulder and one flying out of the palm of his hand

Geoffrey Giuliano. Source: Twitter

Another Ronald performer spent the night in a Michigan jail facing the local police. What was his crime? Not giving up his real name. It’s a strict corporate rule not to disclose your civilian name and to stay in character while in costume. Ultimately, the cops understood and let him go; however, I would love to see those mug shots!

Celebrity Clowns

Apparently, back in 2003, Mickey D’s employed 250 Ronald clowns world-wide. Many of them get to have their own chauffeurs, assistants, and sometimes bodyguards to get rid of protesters or annoying rock-throwing children. Popular comedian and magician Aye Jaye helped create two handbooks: “Ronald & How” and “The Golden Rules of Schmoozing.”

Brooke Shields with a Ronald McDonald at the Ronald McDonald house

Photo by Henry Lamb / BEI / Shutterstock

The books became Top of Minds (TOMS), which is how the company refers to their squad of working Ronalds. Aye Jaye, who was dubbed as “Boss Clown,” set ground rules for all the Ronalds, including how to wear their makeup and how to deal with children trying to give Ronald a hug – they are instructed to give the kids a pat on the back instead.

Only One Ronald

McDonald’s headquarters are notoriously quiet about what goes into the hiring and training of the Ronald McDonald actors. The reason? According to the company, there are no actors playing the part. The company’s official stance is that Ronald McDonald is only one real clown.

Ronald McDonald with a clown blowing bubbles

Photo by London Entertainment / Shutterstock

James Skinner (the long-time McDonald’s CEO), famously shouted in a meeting that “Ronald hasn’t been here because he’s out in the field busy doing work and fighting through the protesters,” trying to give off the illusion that the clown is just one real person. But the CEO was once pressured to answer a question; how was Ronald able to show up to different events around the world on the same day?

He’s Just Like Santa

Skinner had a pretty food response, though. McDonald’s released a statement from Ronald, saying, “If I told you all my secrets, they wouldn’t be secrets anymore. Let’s just say that between you, me and Santa, it’s magic.” That’s one way to keep the myth alive!

Ronald McDonald performing at a McDonald’s convention

Photo by Andrew Francis Wallace / The Star

The company keeps the illusion of one Ronald McDonald by not allowing two Ronalds to be out in public or photographed together, according to the Wall Street Journal. In fact, the only time more than one Ronald may be spotted together is in Oak Brook, Illinois, at the McDonald’s convention. The convention wasn’t all fun for the Ronald clowns; the actors could be fired if they didn’t pass the strict Ronald inspection at the convention.

Donald McDonald

As we know, the Ronald McDonald character has stayed consistent with the corporate specifications. However, in certain countries, the hamburger-loving clown has a completely different image. In Japan, Ronald is simply called “Donald McDonald.” The name isn’t exactly the tongue twister that the translation of his full name would be in Japanese.

Donald McDonald

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The name was pretty natural to Japanese people, who were already familiar with the name Donald Duck. One Japanese ad campaign, in particular, reimagined the character as a younger, sexier version of the iconic clown. This one appears to be a cooler gender-bending form of the clown. Or maybe it’s supposed to be the clown’s daughter. Who knows?

Makeover in Japan!

Stylish twenty-something-year-olds in high fashion versions of Ronald were featured in the Tomato McGrand sandwich advertisements. Ronald’s classic clown suit is replaced with a young female version of Donald McDonald, rocking a white striped tankini.

The new Japanese models Donald McDonalds, one female, and one male

Source: Reddit

The brain behind the campaign is a man known as “Kazoo.” He insists that his intention was not to make a female Ronald McDonald; he just wanted to recognize the popular trend in the Japanese culture trend of “cosplay,” aka costume play. Kazoo exclaimed that the campaign was a major hit and that it was “rated number one likable among high school girls.” Well, that’s quite the accomplishment! High school girls are not easy to please.

McDonaldland

If you were a child from the 70s to early 00s, chances are you associate Ronald McDonald and his wacky squad of critters playing around McDonaldland. It was featured in national television commercials, and kids everywhere were introduced to a magical world filled with a bunch of Ronald’s friends.

The old McDonald’s characters at McDonaldland

Source: Flickr

I remember Mayor McCheese, Officer Big Mac, and the Professor going against the “villains:” Sandwich-stealing Captain Crook and the Hamburglar. Grimace, the purple character, started off as a shake-stealing bad guy but eventually turned into one of Ronald’s buddies. Throughout the years, some characters fizzled out, but new characters were introduced, like the Early Bird, the McNugget Buddies, and plenty more.

Abandoned Land

Sadly, McDonaldland closed its enchanted doors in 2003. The company switched to the “I’m Lovin’ It” campaign. You probably still hear the memorable jingle sung by Justin Timberlake in your ears right now. But if you are feeling nostalgic, you can stop by an old McDonald’s Playplace, which includes a Fry Guys carousel or an Officer Big Mac jail.

Abandoned McDonaldland’s toys

Source: Pinterest

In 2015, the fast-food chain planned on reintroducing some of the iconic characters from McDonaldland, like the Hamburglar, but the reviews were mixed. Ever since we haven’t seen any more advertisements that included the burger thief or any of Ronald’s old friends. But you never know, we’re living in a reboot generation.

Child-Friendly Fun

The thing that really pushed the McDonaldland craze to a whole new stratosphere was adding McDonaldland toys to their Happy Meals in the late 70s. Ronald and his crew appeared on drinking glasses, action figures, board games, school supplies, clothing, and basically every household item.

A screenshot of the Mcdonald’s Treasure Land Adventure video game with Ronald McDonald as the character

Source: Twitter

Six times a year, the corporation published the McDonaldland Fun Times Magazine, which included jokes, puzzles, and fun projects. There were even video games like McDonald’s Treasure Land Adventure, and M.C. Kids were available for Sega and Nintendo systems. In 1988, the feature film “Mac and Me” was released. However, McDonald’s almost didn’t take the world by storm. They actually got in some hot water.

McDonaldland got McSued

McDonald’s seemed to be destined to fail when it was believed that the company had infringed on the ideas of Sid and Marty Krofft’s H.R. Pufnstuf. The resemblance between the characters in both worlds was easy to spot. Specifically, Mayor McCheese’s similarities to H.R. Pufnstuf. They both have a huge head and sash.

H.R. Pufnstuf / Mayor McCheese

Sources: Flickr

However, McDonald’s advertising executives didn’t really deny these allegations. They admitted that they did indeed meet with producers Sid and Marty Krofft’s to create McDonaldland. However, McDonald’s claimed to have canceled the project. They took things one step further when they hired former Krofft’s employees to do voiceover work. After 14 years of court cases and a large payout to Kroffts, McDonald’s kept branding the hamburger-filled universe.

“Bigger than Jesus”

At the height of Ronald McDonald’s popularity, kids proudly carried around a lunchbox featuring their favorite clown around the school. The McDonald’s fad was so huge; it was apparently more popular than Jesus Christ. In 1995, Marketing Week revealed this fun fact in a headline.

Ronald McDonald’s lunch box and thermos

Source: Pinterest

About 7,000 people participated in a survey that was conducted across eight countries. The result was that many more people recognized the McDonald’s arches over the Christian cross. This point was proven once again by Morgan Spurlock in his 2004 documentary, “Super-Size Me.” There is literally a clip where kids at school all recognize Ronald McDonald but confused Jesus for George Bush.

A Very Famous Clown

Eric Schlosser’s best-selling book, “Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All American Meal,” is basically a 2001 exposé and commentary on the changing American diet. It also details how McDonald’s became the most recognized symbol on the planet. Their advertising strategies certainly had something to do with it.

Ronald McDonald with Cole and Dylan Sprouse

Photo by Peter Brooker / Shutterstock

The McDonald’s fast-food chain spends more money on marketing and advertising than all of its competitors. The franchise managed to turn Ronald McDonald into a superstar that is recognized by an astonishing 96 percent of American kids. According to Schlosser, it’s the only fictional character more recognizable than Santa Claus- another extremely popular character who dresses in red and white.

Ronald Doesn’t Sell Food

In 2013, Don Thompson, the CEO at the time, denied that the company contributes to obesity in any way. He pointed out an interesting little fact that you may have never noticed. Ronald McDonald, the company’s famous mascot, is never seen actually eating any of the fast-food from the restaurant.

Ronald McDonald eating a burger in a commercial from the 80s

Source: YouTube

He described the character as just a clown who “represents out charity.” Jim Skinner, the 2007 CEO, largely claimed that “Ronald McDonald has never sold food to kids in the history of his existence.” That’s a pretty bold statement considering the original Ronald served burgers from a magical belt, and in a 70s commercial, Ronald is clearly chomping on a McDonald’s cheeseburger.

No Fries for the Clown

It should be noted that the company has made some noticeable changes to distance the clown from the food he supposedly doesn’t eat. Geoffrey Giuliano, who acted as Ronald in the late 70s, explained that while he’s in character, he was never allowed to eat the food because it would come off as “unseemly.”

Ronald McDonald leaping in the air

Photo by Peter Brooker / Shutterstock

New’s Junkie Becca Hary revealed to the Huffington Post in 2014 that when Ronald goes anywhere in public, “he is focused on spreading joy and smiles.” And McDonald’s latest CEO, Steve Easterbrook, gave a final answer regarding Ronald’s retirement. In 2015, he explained that the clown does not need to file for unemployment, saying, “With regards to Ronald, Ronald’s here to stay.”

Hipster Ronald Was a Big Fail

McDonald’s announced that its iconic clown would be getting a makeover in 2014. Ronald’s classic look was updated with a bowtie and red hipster-ish blazer. His new ensemble also features a yellow windbreaker with the same old candy-cane striped sleeves. The big red shoes didn’t change during this makeover.

The Hipster Ronald McDonald photographed running

Source: Twitter

In 2014, the company promoted the new, cooler version of Ronald. Supposedly, their plan was to boost Ronald’s social media presence. They even quoted Ronald, exclaiming, “Selfies, here I come!” They also wanted the character to tweet using the hashtag #Ronaldmcdonald. It didn’t go as planned, mainly because Twitter users had mixed reviews about Ronald’s new look. But if you are interested in following the clown, Ronald has an Instagram account!

Backlash Might Have Pushed Him Into Early Retirement

McDonald’s is well-aware of the criticism over the nutritional values (or lack thereof) in the food it sells. In 2010, Ronald McDonald’s stardom started to diminish when a Corporate Accountability International poll discovered that more than fifty percent of Americans thought it was time for Ronald to hang up his clown shoes.

Ronald McDonald in front of a McDonald’s Play Place with two dalmatian dogs

Ronald McDonald, 1996. Photo by Peter Brooker / Shutterstock

The reason? Deborah Lapidus, a spokesperson for an organization, called the burger-lovin’ clown a “deep-fried Joe Camel for the 21st century.” She stated that “This clown is no friend to our children or their health.” There is also a 32-page eBook titled “Clowning with Kids’ Health, The Case for Ronald McDonald’s Retirement,” which basically exposes Ronald as a factor in the obesity epidemic.

R.I.P. Ronald

It doesn’t come as a surprise that over 550 doctors reportedly agreed with the poll. McDonald’s got letters asking them to “stop marketing junk food to kids,” and stating that “Ronald captures kids’ attention better than anyone else can.” The public letter was featured in newspaper ads all over the United States.

A Ronald McDonald parade float going passed a McDonald’s in New York at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade 2009. Photo by Erik Pendzich / Shutterstock

The backlash might have worked. The clown has been out of the spotlight recently. It’s important to note that Ronald is still the face of McDonald’s charities, but he doesn’t seem to advertise their calorie-filled fast-food anymore. He hasn’t appeared on the company’s website or social media pages in years! Either way, Ronald is an iconic clown that will be remembered forever.

Now that you know everything about their mascot, here is what you didn’t know about the fast-food chain.