Industry News | July 25, 2011 | QSR Exclusive Brief

Cue the Clown

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McDonald’s introduced a series of new TV spots in April featuring its signature mascot, Ronald McDonald, promoting the McDonald’s kid-oriented HappyMeal.com site. The site has games and videos relating to the company’s products.

The commercials show Ronald interacting with people in a park and on a street, or showing up at homes to give children a telegram from the Happy Meals website.

Children who go to HappyMeal.com can create a message for someone featuring a video of Ronald, or they can upload a picture that can be manipulated to put a shot of the character in the frame. These can then be e-mailed to friends.

“This helps showcase the McDonald’s experience to children and families,” says Danya Proud, a spokeswoman for McDonald’s. “The spots don’t promote any food items, they simply promote the brand, which is what Ronald does best.”

McDonald’s has continued to maintain Ronald’s image despite attacks on the company’s kid-based products and marketing. His frizzy hair was shed for a more modern “shag” cut, and rather than going on adventures with the Hamburgler, he’s more commonly associated with the company’s acclaimed Ronald McDonald House Charities.

Recent polling by E-Poll Market Research shows that Ronald wins the day with kids ages two to five. “His appeal is as high as 61 percent among that age group, which reflects well on the job McDonald’s has done,” says Randy Parker, a marketing consultant with E-Poll.

Meanwhile, Ronald’s appeal rate (“like” or “like a lot”) with kids ages six to 12 stood at 42 percent. For parents of kids, it was just 24 percent.

“While parents don’t find him very appealing, they don’t translate that into their feelings about the brand,” Parker says. According to the same study from E-Poll, McDonald’s overall appeal rate with those same parents was 63 percent.

The red, white, and yellow clown used to be the very public face of McDonald’s. He caught on quickly after his introduction in the early ’60s, and by the 1970s had become a well-known brand representative.

But being the most visible figure at the company means he’s also taken his lumps. Consumer groups have taken McDonald’s to task for using him to promote what they say are unhealthy food choices for children.

Last year, Corporate Accountability International encouraged people to send Ronald retirement cards and held a retirement party for him at a Chicago McDonald’s. And in May, that very same organization took out ads in major U.S. newspapers encouraging McDonald's to stop using Ronald.

But the company has no plans to retire the mascot.

“Ronald has never been sidelined, and he never will,” Proud says. “He’s still the very public face of McDonald’s that he always was.”

By John Morell