A building with a cross on top, what is that? It’s a gathering place where decent, wholesome people come together and they share values protected by that American flag. It could be said that that beautiful building flanked by those arches signifies more or less the same thing.
—Ray Kroc, The Founder (2016)
I can’t remember the first time I entered a McDonald’s. In the same way that I can’t remember my first Lego set, or exactly when the jingle for Lube Mobile was burned into my subconscious, it exists as a cultural behemoth hazily rooted in the mythology of Australian childhood like hot fries sticking out of a crisp chocolate sundae. On primary school playgrounds there was cultural capital in the ritual of it all, as we resented and revered the children who were granted regular passage, bearing the plastic talismans to show for it. As we grew older, wired afternoons after school, drunken evenings and all-nighters were powered by the comfort of a well-known mouthful, and the promise of fats fantastical and familiar.
A bad habit after a long day over the years transforms into tradition, of Friday night Happy Meals with their tissue-paper pocket of fries and injection-moulded treasures, the adored sticky surfaces and sloppy ice-cream cake of a McDonald’s PlayPlace party, or the highway rest areas and bypasses where one found respite, recognisable flavours, and two curved, blonde arches like a beacon guiding you to safety no matter how far from home one strayed.
My own childhood remains punctuated by these visits, the McDonald’s outing a necessity on the first evening of my and my sibling’s fortnightly visits to our grand-parents, their reluctant two plain hamburgers and a shared black coffee an endured kindness that enabled our longing for food that tasted like we imagined love felt. We stood on our toes to see above the counter, deliberating between indulging our craving of crisp, cadmium-yellow Chicken McNuggets or the coalition of a Cheeseburger’s plastic cheese, single pickle and modest ketchup smear, a union as perfect as if it were sanctioned under the eyes of God himself.
As we grew older and our tastes matured, it’s as if the brand reflected this back to us. The iridescent cheese betwixt the hilled bosom of bread still sat centre stage, but they were now flanked by a range of health-conscious options. The introduction of a salad range turned the first sod of topsoil onto what would eventually be buried by the success of McCafés, their IKEA-accent, exposed-beam chic and carefree, casual ads sheltering you from the incandescent glow of your burger-shaped reality: the size of your fist and with enough calories to last you 27 hours.
And yet as our lives shifted and the company changed, there remained one constant, a figure around which the McUniverse would continue to spin. From his humble beginning in 1963, Ronald McDonald ascended to a throne no-one believed possible, first mate and figurehead of a ship traversing global waters with unsinkable aplomb, juggling his roles as chief happiness officer of a multinational, magical patriarch of McDonaldsland, and a friend to anyone in need of a sandwich and a smile.
I remember several of Ronald’s incarnations fondly, in particular the grinning magician of Saturday morning cartoon advertisements. As I grew up glued to the children’s TV shows my grandparents had fastidiously taped since my birth, I got to experience almost a decade of Ronald’s on-screen life compressed into single weekends away; ever-changing and yet always the same.
So it came out of the lustrous blue when, in December of 2017, McDonald’s announced that Ronald was being retired for good. The decision circled quickly, spelling the end of more than 50 years of magic as clowns around the world were told they had mere months to hand in their uniforms. Maybe history caught up with him, a legacy hire from the age of company men and careers embarked upon for life, maybe you just sell enough hamburgers and all you can smell is the bullshit.
Except, Ronald was never real. Despite being one of the most recognised mascots, if not figures, in the world, Ronald McDonald has only ever been a fictional mouthpiece. A global ensemble of masked men brought this figment of a Merry Andrew to life. Once stripped of the plug in a carefully constructed facade, he could only leak hot air; no more human than the likes of KFC’s Colonel, Uncle Ben, or Tony Abbott. And yet Ronald’s retirement didn’t occur in a vacuum.
For a company whose every PR move is focus-grouped to the inch, and whose kitchens are designed to the millimetre, to bury a body with shoes as big as his had to have been a strategic decision years in the making. The age of Ronald McDonald could be considered capitalism’s golden era, so what does his disappearance mean for not only McDonald’s, but brands around the world? Where can we go from here?
We’re quick to point a finger at a moment in fast food where everything changed, but the reality is that for a company that banks on consistency, McDonald’s’ success is found in its ability to constantly change. From the A/B testing in 1962 of a pescatarian option to attract Cincinnati customers during Lent that led to the Filet-O-Fish, to the trial and success of McCafé in an early-nineties Melbourne, the key to McDonald’s’ global domination has been in response to a culture that, despite their best intentions, remains stubbornly larger.
One can chart this continual convergence with shifting norms through a globally changing menu, selling Teriyaki beef to Japanese customers, doughnuts to Germans, and even creating an entirely beef- and pork-free experience in India, and yet maintaining the illusion of a global homogeneity. McDonald’s went to great lengths to develop a brand identity as uniform as it was globally accessible, like pulling a string of red and yellow prayer flags from up their sleeve.
Mary-Angie Salvá-Ramírez writes that the ‘renowned golden arches of McDonald’s symbolize a corporation that achieves uniformity and allegiance to an operating regimen without sacrificing the strengths of American individualism and diversity’. Their most successful slogan, ‘I’m lovin’ it’, speaks to this, invoking the simultaneously individual and universal emotion of love and tying it directly to us as the subject. Salvá-Ramírez remarks on this sleight of hand, noting that ‘McDonald’s manages to mix conformity with creativity’. Like casting a spell, McDonald’s retains an international veneer of uniformity—if we are all lovin’ it, there must be a coherent it for us to love.
This narrative weaving became the primary role of Ronald, a clown fundamentally created to sell junk food to children and going on to break down the line between fiction and fact, his painted face promising to bypass the uncanny valley entirely. Not alone in his task, he was joined by a cast including fan favourites Grimace, The Hamburglar, and Birdie the Early Bird, but also The Happy Meal Gang, Mayor McCheese, Fry Kids, The Professor, Vulture and a character literally named ‘Iam Hungry’. For nearly 40 years this cast padded out McDonald’s’ worldwide ad campaigns, most famously in the fictional utopia McDonaldsland, and yet no-one quite worked magic like the king clown himself.
Unlike the denizens of greater McDonalds-land, and indeed the messy world of food mascots at large, Ronald’s position as salesperson, clown and (debatably) man, placed him in a league of his own. When Ruth Shalit talked to Anh Nguyen of General Mills about the Honey Nut Cheerios Bee, he revealed ‘he’s not a salesman who tries to sell you the product. He’s more like your best friend. A friend who interacts with you to try the product.’ But with Ronald also holding a position of corporate authority, we are expected not only to know and love him, but also to trust him. It’s in this halfway state, simultaneously not human but more than just a corporate cipher that Ronald’s true power is recognised.
While talking to these bizarre PR hacks, Shalit finally manages to track down someone who had once worked on Ronald’s portfolio, who I’ll remind you is talking about a fictional character. She writes:
I asked the spokesman if he could at least describe to me what he considered to be Ronald’s true nature. ‘We’re on background, right?’ he said. ‘Because I’d be more comfortable doing this on a background basis.’ When I assured him we were, there was a long pause. ‘OK,’ the spokesman finally said, his voice dropping to a whisper. ‘He is kids’ fun magical friend.’
And yet this not so secret inclination hides the harsher reality, that his role is as much one of missionary as it is companion to the unwashed masses, spreading the good imperial values of clean eating and clean living in the name of America. McDonald’s serves as a far more successful export than pure politics, going so far as to outnumber patrons to Lenin’s tomb upon first opening in Moscow, and now drawing in customers in over 120 countries. What we might consider as the background radiation of our modern lives—those golden arches a fixture perhaps of our work lunches, road trips and regrettable late night-decisions—has become positioned as a sacred ritual around the world.
Anthropologist Conrad P. Kottak wrote in the 1970s of the ‘temporary subordination of individual differences’ that occurred in the fast-growing restaurant chain, breaking ground alongside council chambers, courthouses and churches across American heartlands. ‘By eating at McDonald’s’ he writes, ‘not only do we communicate that we are hungry, enjoy hamburgers, and have inexpensive tastes but also that we are willing to adhere to a value system and a series of behaviours dictated by an exterior entity’, chiefly the United States. As the world has changed since, however, and flags and crosses have increasingly gone out of fashion, arches remain in place across the landscape, giving no sign of going anywhere.
There is a particular power in selling hyperreality, as Russell W. Belk describes it, ‘a sanitized version of reality, cleansed of strife, world problems, dirt, prejudice, exploitation, or other problems of everyday life’. While most visible in the foam latex and paint-fume fever dream of a McDonaldsland commercial, we too see it at work in restaurants around the world; the foreign-familiar of ritualised food practices exported on a global scale. Thomas L. Friedman teased out a golden arches theory in 1996, claiming that no two countries with a McDonald’s had waged war against one another since doing so, but Belk takes the idea like a bag from a bank and runs with it, writing that ‘with Ronald McDonald leading the way, multinational consumer goods corporations are now breaking down international barriers that have withstood armies, missionaries, crusaders, and politicians of the past’.
However, while Ronald’s unique positioning as a leader is significant, it is not more so than his role as a clown. It’s through this unique place of overlapping authority and jester-dom that we might begin to understand why the world no longer has room for Ronald. As David M. Boje and Carl Rhodes write, ‘although he is orchestrated by the corporation to deliver a corporate message, he can also mock and criticize McDonald’s itself’.
This function they refer to as double narration, and explain it as ‘how when an author (the corporation) represents the words of a character (Ronald) what that character says is never under the full control of the author’. This stems in particular from the reality that Ronald was always multiple figures, in multiple countries, speaking 25 languages, as much a cultural ambassador as he was cartoon character. The ability to control such a figure grew increasingly limited the wider McDonald’s’ reach extended, and a one-size-fits-all cog has no room in a meticulous behemoth.
Whereas mascots have become increasingly popular for brands due to their ability to be curated and controlled—Kevin Lane Keller, professor of marketing at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, notes that ‘companies are turning to fictitious spokespeople because the real ones are getting thrown in jail’—Ronald found a way out from under the crushing weight of binders of trade secrets, full to bursting with exactly how he meant to speak, act and think, and yet failing to predict this shift.
Maybe it was inevitable. Throughout history, clowns have spun plates on the knife edge of power, and have remained both aware of and beyond the pull of it. Though to look at this figure now is to place him in a peerless category. When we start at the recent Ronald and draw a line back through the greasepaint of history, it is straighter than one might expect.
While the sad man with the painted smile is no longer an object of curiosity, far more likely to attract parody or subversion in the horrific or haunted, or simply to be pawned off as cliché in bad Batman reboots, this wasn’t always the case. The lineage of clowns extends back through time, the role consistently one of subverting expectation for comedic turn or alarming effect, the gaudy adornment going a long way to inform us that not everything will be as it seems. To see Ronald today is to see him stand alone, but that he exists at all is solely on the shoulders of one of the greatest performers to have lived: the great clown Joseph Grimaldi.
Until the nineteenth century, clowns formed a largely diverse brethren, a ‘harmless, sentimental’ cohort loosely grouped by conduct, but Grimaldi changed everything. Born in London to a dysfunctional family of dancers and harlequins, Grimaldi was groomed practically from birth to be a performer, receiving praise in the press for his turns and tumbles at six years of age.
As he worked on and off stage in a number of London theatres, recognition of his natural ability grew, coming to a head in 1800 in a play by Charles Dibdin that required he wear a ‘garishly colourful’ outfit, an attire quickly copied throughout the city. Victorian journalist Andrew Halliday wrote of Grimaldi’s new costume, and its function in his appearance as a ‘great lubberly loutish boy, irrevocably altering the clown’s persona from an identifiable (though outdated) servant into some kind of temporally nonspecific man-child he called “Joey”’. In his article on the period, ‘Clowns on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’, Andrew Stott writes:
Grimaldi oversaw the transition from the red-haired ‘rustic booby’ that had remained more or less unaltered since its popularization by Richard Tarlton in the sixteenth century to the heavily made-up and colorfully attired clowns that we are familiar with today.
Unlike clowns preceding him, Grimaldi transformed every inch of himself, from the white foundation covering his face, neck and hands, to a wide red-painted mouth and vaulted brows, leaving no part of his body unadorned. Stott writes of this new creation, and how it ‘implied a much stricter division between character and performer than had been presented before. Grimaldi was literally subsumed … and subsequently, “Joey” and “Grimaldi” came to be perceived as distinct entities, even opposites engaged in a battling but reciprocal relationship.’
Central to this metamorphosis is that his off-stage predilections and character were as present in the tellings of his life as his performance-derived persona, ‘[affording] him a legitimacy that was otherwise denied by his profession’. That he could be present on stage for a courageous feat or a ‘Grimaldi’s leap’ (‘any manoeuvre, literal or conceptual, performed at great personal risk’) only furthered the fascination with the tortured and moribund man who performed them, fans flipping between the arts section and the tabloids, equally entertained by both.
It’s in this ‘branded identity’ of two distinct entities that we find the modern clown’s home, successful due to being ‘easily recognizable in the crowded marketplace, continually developing to offer new satisfactions but remaining reassuringly familiar’. Stott writes, ‘With the clown’s “slap” as a constant reminder of self-division, Grimaldi’s carefully calibrated economy of pleasure and pain becomes not only the defining feature of his career but also the mysterious source of his talent.’
Grimaldi pioneered a modern form of clowning that continues to this day, and yet Ronald bucks the trend once more. Unlike Grimaldi’s Joey and his persisting brotherhood, to peel the mask off this corporate cipher reveals no inner workings or personhood, only a careful Chinese Room of jargon and frying oil. While he cashes in on the legitimacy that a painted face affords, implying its grease-free counterpart by default, we know that he is an artifice and respond accordingly.
Many factors led to the modern coulrophobic turn: the increasing use of clowns as fictional figures of horror and perversity, the public favour slowly shifting away from the anonymous performer, let alone a couple of midnight sightings of creepy clowns across the United States a few years back not helping their cultural cachet one bit. But it many ways it came down to trust. There was a time in which it felt like magic for a clown to pull a coin from behind your ear, but these days it just feels like you’re being shown a dollar menu.
That Ronald was to be retired came as a surprise, but lobby groups had been openly calling for the dismissal for the better part of a decade. McDonald’s CEOs stepped in each time the campaign raised its voice, including in 2014 when Don Thompson defended Ronald against claims that he encouraged unhealthy eating for children, and instead ‘only spreads joy and smiles’.
And yet we now know this isn’t strictly true. McDonald’s has always implemented a degree of positive spin, with no example more emblematic than painting Stella Liebeck’s ‘hot coffee’ lawsuit in the early 1990s as the number one scapegoat of legal frivolity, carefully brushing over the fact that her compensation was commensurate with having suffered third-degree burns over 16 per cent of her body, which required two years of recovery after the incident.
Several years prior to that case the company had suffered another legal defeat. In a lawsuit dubbed the McLibel case, McDonald’s poured millions of pounds into prosecuting the distribution of a small 1986 leaflet on the grounds of misinformation. The leaflet, titled ‘What’s Wrong with McDonald’s’, claimed a range of workers’ rights and animal-health violations, alongside broader claims of mass deforestation and economic imperialism.
Much to the embarrassment of McDonald’s, while the defence was found liable for overstating several claims, the judge found some of the factsheet to be accurate, including that McDonald’s endangered the health of their workers and customers by ‘misleading advertising’, they ‘exploit children’, they were ‘culpably responsible’ in the infliction of unnecessary cruelty to animals, they were ‘antipathetic’ to unionisation and they paid their workers low wages: not exactly the carefree visage they had hoped to cultivate.
As much as the company tried to bury the ruling, a growing environmental movement and a shifting public perception of the powers of advertising would go on to have the findings reflected in legislation. In 2008 Britain legislated a ban on selling food ‘high in fat, salt, and sugar’ to kids, with Australia introducing its own voluntary codes just a year later, aiming to reduce the targeting of junk-food advertising at children. While these have hardly changed since, a shift in public consciousness towards how brands interact with children had begun.
It’s no coincidence that this period coincided with the slow demolition of McDonaldsland. Like an old growth forest cleared to run cattle, as the cast of characters were mulched and recycled to make room for McDonald’s’ new ‘eco-savvy’ era, maybe it was just easiest to throw the big guy out with the bathwater. Ronald could never entirely take the fall for the company’s misdeeds, but maybe his image no longer haunting the halls of Hamburger University would at least show they were taking the critique seriously; Ronald’s disappearance serving as one last Grimaldi’s leap.
As our communal tastes have changed from the days of plastic cheese and packet-mix milkshakes, so have our appetites for how they are sold to us. Once the love-language of a brand to its audience, the place of a modern mascot has never been less sure-footed. Brands of today no longer hope to speak to us through an external force, as our friends and companions, but instead directly to us, bypassing the need for an interpreter or idol entirely.
Our interactions with companies today aren’t just a search for a product, but a method and ideal of living as well; only money stands in the way of being granted access to a mode of being. We can see this constant wrangling in the many calculated moves that brands now take, from KFC sending the colonel to DJ at a popular Miami music festival, or giving a sandwich brand an anime wife, or rebranding semi-fictional rice farmer Uncle Ben from complicated racial stereotype to ‘empowered’ black CEO.
As brands try to become a part of our internal lives and thought processes, sweeping their sins under the sticky carpet in the process, they break down the screen of artifice that separates us from them, consumer from consumable.
There’s a hyper-distillation of this occurring on Twitter, as companies vie for the cred or clapback that could land them on your timeline, laughing and pressing that MF retweet button as underpaid interns write on-trend copy and hamburger brands start beef. As companies become indistinguishable from their handles and PR snark, we develop favourites, fandoms, and god-forsaken reams of furry art, and yet none of this escapes the control of corporate intent. Behind each of these witticisms and woke brands are a team of people holding multi-level strategy meetings to determine which emoji might best establish their laissez-faire market dominance; meanwhile, our interest wanes in the wake of it all.
McDonald’s is no stranger to this online whirlwind, announcing the introduction of their wide-eyed, unflinchingly carnal mascot Happy to English-speaking customers via a tweet that provoked outrage, as commentators and columnists filled inches on every aspect of a single image, becoming something that whether you loved or hated, you had an opinion on and therefore paid attention to.
As native content became king overnight, Ronald woke up to a world with no room for him. His gradual access to the power of double narration meant he could escape what McDonald’s required of him, slowly, carefully; taking on the simulacrum of a life. In this new age of the ad, McDonald’s could no longer tolerate a spokesperson that in any way existed apart from them, and this was the beginning of the end for him.
Increasingly, it’s a visible function of globalised capitalism that Ronald can only be a paradox. As brands want to find their way from an external entity we engage with to a part of how we view ourselves and our identities, there is no longer room for a single character or voice. We are asked to write the script and star in the ad that is our lives, making sure to tag, like, comment and subscribe, bringing the hyperreality into our cars, living rooms and mealtimes of our own accord. Boje and Rhodes practically eulogise him in their article, writing ‘Ronald has played a game of leadership that refocused the linguistic and symbolic reality of McDonald’s’, and in true neoliberal style, he performed himself out of a job.
As founder Ray Kroc flew across the American Midwest, searching for the perfect crossroads and hill crests to place his ever-expanding restaurant empire, he left no stone unmeasured in the physical foundations of brick-and-mortar kitchens, but without knowing, maybe McDonaldsland’s roots were damned from the start, rotting under the concrete and linoleum surface all along.
Where once talking hamburgers, smiling faces and a stranger in a clown suit might have been enough to convince us there was magic to it all, the spark has since faded. Seeing an ensemble of singing foam-latex Chicken McNuggets only serving to remind us of the unreality of what we are actually eating, just as seeing the friendly face of Ronald reminds us of the real clowns he can only ever be a faded facsimile of.
I can’t remember the first time I set foot in a McDonald’s, and I can’t remember the last time I found myself in one, either. Despite the occasional pang of nostalgia, of food only made edible by memory, nothing has tempted me back there as an adult. Yet, I wonder how this will change if I have children of my own; the pure, satisfying burn of hot fries on barely formed tastebuds, of Baked Apple Pies and Thickshakes, of going through the drive-thru after dark in the back seat and feeling like the whole world could one day be yours.
Grace Dent, writing on the way that processed food and class intersect, asks this question of herself and ponders the joy of being able to reward her niece with fast food. She muses, ‘I do not want her to grow up eating McDonald’s. But, at the same time, I grew up being rewarded with McDonald’s and remember those moments as pure happiness.’ This memory, this golden glowed look to the past is how I view Ronald too.
Unlike the pastors and engagement officers of other faiths and foodstuffs, Ronald never needed to pretend coolness; he was only required to be the dag with a fresh bag of fries spreading the good word. And yet where religious leaders openly promote themselves as the leaky vessels of their lord’s work, Ronald was presented as your pal, all the while a literal conduit from corporation to consumer, breaking Filet-O-Fish for the gathered, smiling as the collection basket made its way around. Maybe no metaphor is more apt than the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Ronalds handing in their costumes, out of work, found face down in the water as the marketing sails pick up new winds.
I think Ronald was on the way out well before anyone could admit it was happening, a character so beholden to the bacchanal orgy of symbolism that clowns now evoke that he grew inseparable from the balloon-laden suburban nightstalker or the haunting id of It. I think at his peak Ronald represented the world’s most famous act of artifice; a friendly facade, but a facade none the less, and we now live in a world that is only interested in the real. I think that Ronald just got old, the corollary of a capitalist success story.
Just as there is no beef burger without the felled tree, the chemical runoff or the stagnant minimum wage, time too has its natural by-products. Still, it feels like Ronald McDonald deserves a more honest eulogy than this, not just of wiping the slate clean for a new day’s specials, of a burdensome silence into the sweet and sour night, but maybe this is part of the master plan.
As we hunger for something more authentic, more organic, more real, perhaps Ronald is best left buried, a product to project our nostalgia upon, to salivate over not the Cheeseburger, but the memory of the Cheeseburger we ate as a child, and the clown that took a bite before offering it to us like it held the secret of knowledge itself. Maybe not, and the day has set on our hero. A clown fades from history and we continue on nescient, the only headstone a pair of yellow arches on the dark horizon. •
Liz Duck-Chong is a freelance writer, researcher, filmmaker and sexual health advocate whose work has been published widely. You can find her online at @lizduckchong.
 Pantone PMS 123 C.
 One rejected idea was the Hulaburger, a slab of grilled pineapple in a bun.
 Mary-Angie Salvá-Ramírez, ‘McDonald’s: A prime example of corporate culture’, Public Relations Quarterly, vol. 40, no. 4 (Winter 1995) p. 30.
 The closer to real a humanoid object/face appears, without reaching reality, the more uncomfortable we become.
 Conrad P. Kottak, ‘Rituals at McDonald’s’, Journal of American Culture, vol 1, no. 2 (Summer 1978) pp. 370–376. <https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1542-734X.1978.0102_370.x>.
 Russell W. Belk, ‘Hyperreality and Globalisation: Culture in the age of Ronald McDonald’, Journal of International Consumer Marketing, vol. 8, no. 3 (January 1996) pp. 23–37.
 Thomas L. Friedman, ‘Foreign Affairs Big Mac I’, The New York Times, Dec. 8, 1996 <https://www.nytimes.com/1996/12/08/opinion/foreign-affairs-big-mac-i.html>.
 Belk, ‘Hyperreality and Globalization’.
 David M. Boje and Carl Rhodes, ‘The leadership of Ronald McDonald: Double narration and stylistic lines of transformation’, Leadership Quarterly, vol. 17. no. 1 (February 2006) pp. 94–103.
 Shalit, ‘The Mr. Peanut chronicles’.
 Shalit, ‘The inner Doughboy’.
 Andrew Stott, ‘Clowns on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown: Dickens, Coulrophobia, and the Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi’, Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, vol. 12, no. 4 (Fall 2012) pp. 3–25.
 Stott, ‘Clowns on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’.
 Stott, ‘Clowns on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’.
 ‘Clowning with kids health’, Corporate Accountability, (November 2017) <https://www.corporateaccountability.org/resources/case-ronald-mcdonalds-retirement/clowning-with-kids-health/>
 Boje and Rhodes, ‘The leadership of Ronald McDonald’.
 Grace Dent, ‘The processed food debate is delicious, MSG-sprinkled class war’, The Guardian, 2 June 2018, <https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/jun/02/grace-dent-processed-food-delicious-msg-sprinkled-class-war>