Ronald McDonald’s Low Profile Predates Creepy Clown Incidents
CHICAGO —Ronald. Paging Ronald. Are you there, Ronald?
McDonald’s said Tuesday that its trusty clown mascot Ronald McDonald is taking a hiatus in response to a rash of creepy clown sightings across the U.S. and even across the pond. But he was keeping a low profile long before that.
Ronald McDonald has his own Twitter account, but he hasn’t had anything to say, and his role in the chain’s advertisements has been diminished in recent years. The last time Ronald McDonald made news in a big way was in 2014, when he underwent his first makeover in nearly a decade.
The red-haired ambassador has been working less in recent years as a growing cacophony of parents and educators resists the idea of a happy clown marketing burgers, chicken nuggets and french fries to kids.
Several organizations, including frequent critic Corporate Accountability International, have urged the company to push Ronald into permanent retirement. The Boston-based watchdog has been aggressively targeting McDonald’s and its marketing to kids since 2010. Representatives of the organization have appeared at McDonald’s annual shareholder meetings every year since, urging the corporation to stop using Ronald McDonald, calling him the “Joe Camel” of fast food.
Sriram Madhusoodanan a director at Corporate Accountability International, agrees that for the past few years, Ronald McDonald has been in the back seat.
“While they’ll publicly defend him on the stage of shareholder meetings, there’s clearly been a quiet pulling back of Ronald,” Madhusoodanan said.
The world’s largest burger chain, meanwhile, has ignored the group’s calls to retire Ronald McDonald and insists it is not engaging in so-called “predatory marketing” to children. In past years, former CEO Don Thompson responded to angry parents, health professionals and activists at McDonald’s annual meetings by noting that Ronald primarily serves as a charity ambassador and by appearing —not eating —at children’s birthday parties.
“You don’t see Ronald McDonald eating food,” Thompson said in May 2014, adding that Ronald McDonald is rarely in schools or restaurants. Weeks earlier, the company, headquartered in suburban Chicago, introduced a new, more modern Ronald McDonald —his first makeover in almost a decade. That year, he bid adieu to his baggy jumpsuit and replaced it with slim cargo pants and a vest, with a red blazer and bow tie for special occasions. The makeover was announced in the midst of a months-long sales slump that would continue for months after and eventually lead to Thompson’s ouster.
It was also in 2014 that Ronald took his big leap into social media, with the hashtag #RonaldMcDonald. There is a Twitter account secured for him, but it is inactive. And he hasn’t taken a larger role in marketing campaigns as was promised at the time. Ronald does seem to be a fan of Instagram, though, posting about 260 pictures of his adventures over the past two years.
When questioned at this year’s annual meeting, current CEO Steve Easterbrook reiterated his predecessor’s stance:
“Ronald’s here to stay,” he said.
And on Wednesday, McDonald’s said Ronald’s public schedule —outside of the recent creepy clown concerns —hasn’t been scaled back.
“Nothing has changed in regards to his public appearances over recent years except for his actual appearance,” spokeswoman Terri Hickey said in a statement. “As he has for decades, Ronald McDonald continues to be an active ambassador for McDonald’s, representing the fun and happiness of our brand. He appears at our restaurants and other community events when invited to spread messages on important topics such as safety, literacy, anti-bullying and the importance of physical activity.”
Madhusoodanan suggested that the clown controversy may be an opportunity for Ronald to pull back further without much notice.
“It just seems like this is the time for McDonald’s to heed the call to have Ronald hang up its clown shoes once and for all,” he said.