Everyone needs a break now and then, to recoup the energy needed to fight the good fight.* If you need one, spend a few minutes of your day reading Liz Duck-Chong‘s essay on the demise of Ronald McDonald in Meanjin.
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.
But times change.
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.
* FYI white folks, we get fewer breaks.