The surprise Season 3 premiere of Adult Swim's sci-fi sitcom Rick and Morty on April Fools' Day sent me straight down the internet rabbit hole. In a good way.
In the show, mad genius Rick Sanchez (Justin Roiland) tells his grandson Morty (also Justin Roiland) that his raison d'etre is attempting to bring back McDonald's Szechuan Sauce, a special McNugget dipping sauce produced for the movie Mulan. It's an obscure subject to joke about, made all the more absurd after the official Rick and Morty Twitter account shared the original Szechuan Sauce commercial. Yes, it contains the phrase "a taste of the East."
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The gong-happy child in this commercial got me wondering: What other weird, tone-deaf promotions did the Golden Arches run in the past? So I dug into Micky D's ads from the past, from the US and around the world, and, well, most of them barely make a lick of sense. Here are some of the wildest ones available.
The first Ronald McDonald commercial
What's happening: In 1963, McDonald's launched its first mascot-led message to children, starring a clown dressed in different McDonald's products, including a full-meal hat, a drink cup for a nose, and a belt buckle that makes endless fries, hamburgers, and Cokes. This Ronald talks in an odd voice and doesn't seem to understand the demands of television.
The commercial stars Willard Scott, who also played Bozo the Clown, one of the most popular children's show hosts at the time. McDonald's itself doesn't recognize Scott as the person who came up with the definitive mascot version of Ronald McDonald, which makes sense when you see his version of the character.
Stranger danger Ronald McDonald
What's happening: A kid catches a flying hamburger while a street clown performs feats to prove he's "the real Ronald McDonald." After a few belt-burgers, the kid forgets all the advice his parents gave him, both talking to and accepting food from a stranger. Ronald himself actually points out that normally kids shouldn't talk to or accept food from strangers (especially strange clowns?!), but it's totally cool because he's the real Ronald McDonald. This sounds like a script for child abductions. I guess the 1960s were a simpler time when you could accept food from wandering mascots.
The McDonald's trick-or-treat safety cups
What's happening: It's Halloween on the McDonaldland soundstage, and Ronald McDonald is finally recognizable to modern audiences… but what are those shiny cuffs he's wearing? They're to make kids trick-or-treating at night more visible, of course!
These glorified aluminum koozies are a bald-faced ploy to give kids and parents an excuse to buy McDonald's. Modern consumers would rip this idea to shreds, but in the 1970s, the hamburger chain sold it. This tactic would eventually evolve into the Happy Meal that came with a special toy.
A Moon Man stalks kids with an ominous tune
What's happening: We see a kid working into the wee hours of the night, unaware there's a besuited Moon Man on his roof, singing a bastardized version of Bobby Darin's "Mack the Knife," a song about a murderer.
This campaign became McDonald's push into the dinnertime market after being dominated for years by fast-food pizza chains and regular restaurants. The solution was the Moon Man, who sang the "Mac Tonight" parody which, in theory, appealed to baby boomers who were familiar with the Bobby Darin song. Marketing him to kids, though, was creepy, especially when you consider the lyrical content of the original song. Luckily, the Darins sued McDonald's and ended that particular ditty being used for the campaign.
McShawarma Pulp Fiction parody
What's happening: An embarrassingly bad take on the legendary conversation between John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in Quentin Tarantino's classic. Instead of the Royale with Cheese in France, it's the McShawarma in Israel. Bad Travolta and Bad Jackson also note that Israelis don't say "please," because it's English, but the commercial is also in English? What the hell is going on here?
Sexy Ronald McDonald
What's happening: This is what happens when you start with the branding of Ronald McDonald, then dare to ask: What if Ronald were a sexy woman, and not a goofy male clown? In the end, I suppose I have to give some credit for avoiding the even more disturbing "sexy hamburger clown," though the close-up crotch shot doesn't exactly scream "eat these fries!"
In 2004, the Leo Burnett ad agency figured it would "reimagine" Ronald McDonald for a Japanese audience, and what could be more surprising and appropriate than a scantily clad woman wearing yellow, red, and stripes? Oh wait. It's a thing. Hey, if you're into that, more power to you.
Assault in McDonald's
What's happening: Did that woman just slap that guy with a facial tic? Does the final shot imply that he was faking his facial tic, which makes him an even bigger asshole than the slapper? There are no winners here.
That woman is Shazahn Padamsee, an Indian actress and model whose first film appearance was in 2009. It looks like this ad predates that by at least two years, in the much less politically correct climate of 2007.
What's happening: Help! I'm endlessly falling into a beard! Then alarms go off! This isn't pleasant!
In this case, the messed-up part is actually what's going on behind the scenes. This is a Swedish commercial for McDonald's coffee from 2008 that shamelessly ripped off a GIF created by English animator Cyriak Harris. What's worse, the company did it to him again...
... albeit through another ad agency and in a different country.
A woman in hats. That's it. Just a woman in hats.
What's happening: Look, the international "I'm Lovin' It" campaign could literally refer to anything. She's lovin' McDonald's? Or she's lovin' hats? She's lovin' choice? The color white? This is what happens when your brand becomes so ubiquitous, a branding tagline can be at once universal and vague.
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