Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Lovin’ This Clown

It looks like we’ve already got another major contender in the increasingly crowded plasticized-heads-in-advertising space.

Who’s the latest frozen face in the crowd? Well, he’s got a red nose, Kabuki skin and, like Courtney Love on a pre-rehab bender, red lipstick smeared in a giant ring around his mouth. Why, it’s that loveable clown Ronald McDonald! But in this campaign, he is inanimate, a statue, so he seems newly thoughtful and deep.

Image-wise, within this limited but prominent genre (the terrifying, inflexible head thing), how could McDonald’s so obviously rip off the Burger King, you ask?

In fairness, Ronald is the No. 1 fast food company’s long-established brand icon, with decades of child-related equity to trot out, while the King might have always existed in the BK brand name, but never really in the, er, flesh, before Crispin invented him. But inevitably, comparisons will be made, so let’s be the first to go to the mats:

Who is more macho? This is a tough one. The King has a lot more heft, to be sure, but he’s also got the ruffles, those cocktail rings and that Hair-Club-for-Men-shaded pompadour-and-beard combo. Certainly, he looks more intimidating while sitting in bed with the giant meaty-cheesy breakfast sandwich than when he runs around a football field with his surprisingly skinny little bandy legs.

Ronald McDonald, on the other hand, is a flyweight to begin with. He dresses in a yellow jumpsuit and striped stockings, and boasts painted-on, apostrophe-like black eyebrows and a bright orange shock wig. It’s tremendously close, but it looks like we have to give it to the King. Perhaps a better question is: Which one is creepier?

Again, this is in the eye of the french fry eater. I imagine that six months back, most viewers would have said the King because of the Louis XV get-up along with the voyeuristic tendencies. But with all that recent media exposure showing the Royal one as a more American-type guy, it seems he’s growing on people.

Obviously, Ronald McD is a different story, and a lot depends on how you feel about clowns, and possibly Carrot Top. The whole Bozo thing is over, to be sure. Krusty on The Simpsons has doomed any vestiges of clown earnestness in the culture.

I always found Ronald scary, but still, the points here go to the King.

So I guess the King whooped Ronald’s ass—for now. This campaign could possibly boost Ronald’s prominence as a familiar symbol re-examined. The commercials are actually quite smart and simple, and incorporate the clown in a clever setup.

A little background: The campaign is global (as opposed to the BK King). TBWA\Chiat\Day started with the account in Paris, and branched out.

The idea of the bench is clever: Most McDonald’s franchises already have a bench with Ronald seated on it somewhere on the premises. (The benches in the spots seem sleeker, however.)

This campaign takes the bench out of the restaurant and plants it in wide-open spaces, so that various characters can interact at will with the wigged one. It’s a device that allows for an infinite number of possibilities. In the five spots that I saw, most characters who sit down for a chat with the clown want to confess something, and get absolution. He might not be the pope, but he’s an improvement over Dr. Phil. In an effort to establish trust with Ronald, some of his companions, both human and furry, start mirroring his trademarked seated, cross-legged posture, so the spots become, at best, Chaplin-esque, and at worst, like watching a mime.

But the scene is also open enough to allow the viewer to bring whatever he wants to it. Only one spot, “Scarf,” showing a little kid giving Ronald his scarf in the snow, is sentimental; the rest allow for varying amounts of edge.

“Bigfoot,” for example, has a certain slacker-y Starburst feel—a guy in a Sasquatch suit sidles up to the clown, and moves closer and closer, communicating through grunts. The final five-note “I’m lovin’ it” close is Bigfoot crooning as well. (This is cleverly reminiscent of the MasterCard sign-off that features a different graphic device tailored to each spot.) “Handshake” seemed familiar—like a “Whassup” takeoff, but still enjoyable. The bench guy explains his angst about all the handshakes that are around now—”fingerlock … fists on top, full chest pump.” He ends the monologue by asking whether he’s “overthinking it”—this to a man with a rigid enamel face and no brain.

There’s a guy in a hamster suit who talks about being a football mascot. I thought that one was just one too many talking rodents in ads. (The “swan-dive into a pile of woodchips” line was clever, though.)

There’s also a spot featuring a red-haired girl who bonds with The Man over their hair color and “pale skin” thing, but also speaks to the inherent creepiness of Ron’s face by saying, “I think you went a little crazy with the sunscreen, though.”

The spots are artfully directed and flexible. This idea can travel anywhere. The king is not dead, but I guess this brings new meaning to plastic.