I always thought he was vaguely suspect—what with his Pippi Longstocking legwear and bright orange hair. But when you see Ronald McDonald snowboarding down a yogurt mountain while dodging enormous strawberries, it becomes clear: The poor guy never got over the '60s. He's tripping—not on them big red shoes but on hallucinogens. Maybe that's why, in this new ad, the former "chief happiness officer" appears to be in Switzerland (under the care of a specialist perhaps?).
Actually, as we see by the end of this Monty Python meets Yellow Submarine, 2-D animated commercial, the slimmed-down corporate clown is merely on an activity-and-healthy-eating bender, part of his transition to a "balanced, active-lifestyles ambassador" who now likes to say, "It's what I eat and what I do. I'm lovin' it."
Changing Ronald's title from one absurdity to another, and having him mouth the words of a carefully articulated brief, of course, matters not a whit to consumers. Whatever you call him (and however you dress him—in the soon-to-be-unveiled tracksuit, I think he looks like he just got over gastric-bypass surgery), customers will be persuaded only by what's on the McMenu. Lately there's been a lot of media weight put behind the "fruit buzz" that McDonald's hopes we achieve via its new Fruit and Walnut Salad. David Letterman wondered whether deep-fried fruit and walnuts would be next—and that's the problem in a nutshell. No matter how brave, praiseworthy, industry-leading and/or civic-minded the changes are, people associate McDonald's with (dee-licious and addictive) fried fat. And for the time being, any "active lifestyle" images induce cognitive dissonance.
It's the blatant hypocrisy that's hard to swallow: Are we supposed to believe McDonald's is committed to changing the very behavior it created and helped maintain for 50 years? It's like Madonna telling everyone (which she's now doing, as a primly dressed children's book author) that she doesn't let her kids watch TV because it's not good for them.
Layered over the hypocrisy is the schizophrenia of the current hyper-competitive fast-food culture. (Can you blame any ambassador of this industry for needing time on the couch?) While most of the chains claim they offer a range of healthy choices, much of the hype lately has been about items like Burger King's Enormous Omelette Sandwich and Carl's Jr.'s huge Spicy BBQ Burger. Never mind the soft-core porn of the so-bad-we-have-to-watch-it-again-and-again Paris Hilton ad for Carl's Jr. What's hard-core is the calorie and fat count of the hot thang. Obviously, they think the financial gain is worth the legal and regulatory risk, as fast-food companies become the new tobacco.
In fairness, with this initiative, McDonald's is taking a leadership role. It has ended supersizing (nothing to do with Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me, of course), has no 1,000-calorie-plus monster sandwiches and is changing to healthier oil and adding healthy menu items. I'm not a nutritionist (though I play one on TV), so I won't comment on the menu end of it. OK, I'll comment. The salads are surprisingly good, but as has been pointed out, the Bacon Ranch Salad with the crispy chicken and regular dressing has nearly as many calories as a Quarter Pounder. Similarly, bravo on the apple slices, but why package them alongside the gooey caramel dipping glop? (How's that for science?) The onus should not be on the consumer to keep the order low-fat and low-cal after it's on the tray.
While they get the food figured out, let me say that I expected this commercial to be a lot worse. Burnett took an almost-impossible assignment and created a delightfully animated, intriguing spot. The big-headed cutout and collage-ish frames take us to a parallel universe, where it's not excruciatingly embarrassing to picture Ronald juggling a tomato and an oversized melon, for example. Indeed, with its cool visuals and odd details, it's the kind of commercial you don't mind watching over and over. (It will also work well globally and will air everywhere from Hong Kong to Argentina.)
Animation was the smart way to go. Cartoons appeal to adults and to children, who read them very differently. That said, I think it's a mistake to center the whole initiative on Ronald and his makeover. The whole Bozo the clown thing is extremely dated; outside of the circus, it's hard to take a guy with a clown nose in earnest anymore. Satirical characters like Krusty on The Simpsons have doomed any vestiges of clown innocence. Also, the idea of a strangely dressed, thin man in a wig and makeup (in a tracksuit or not) acting as an "ambassador to children" gets a little McCreepy.
But I'm willing to believe that McDonald's recognizes there is an obesity problem, and I give them credit for initiating this change. It's no doubt going to be met with much skepticism, and selling health is not nearly as easy, or as fun, as selling madly bad-for-you but addictive comfort food. The spot has an upbeat tone without resorting to hectoring or seeming too holier than thou. The question now is what percentage of the media budget this initiative will get, and for how long. Will franchisees withstand several quarters of declining sales while people get re-educated? That's what it's going to take.
It will be a long, hard row to snowboard. But let's say, non-cynically, that this commercial is a credible start.
"Come Out and Play"
Leo Burnett, Chicago
Executive creative dir.
Cd, art director
Acd, art director
George Jecel, Believe Media
Don Hoeg, Radar
Jessica Wise, Believe Media
Brian Willard, Radar
Joey Depakakibo, Radar
Larry Pecorella, Comma Music