Chicago — Sure he looks friendly, with his big smile, colourful jumpsuit and playful repartee. But get ready for some McAttitude.
"We're letting Ronald escape from the playpen," said Canadian Larry Light, McDonald's global chief marketing officer, who was born in Montreal and educated at McGill University.
"He's been confined to kids. We're repositioning Ronald McDonald. So, Ronnie is going through a retraining program — taking courses in humour that kids can look up to rather than adults look down at."
Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald's Corp. has been quietly tweaking the character's image in recent years as it struggled to revitalize its marketing, menu items and sales.
Corporative executives are preparing for a coming out, of sorts, of the revamped Ronald in the near future.
The clown will frequently drop the familiar red, yellow and white jumpsuit and size 29EEEs shoes (which were inducted into Toronto's Bata Shoe Museum last fall) and don different outfits, such as a basketball jersey, a beach outfit and a tuxedo. In all, there are seven new costumes, Mr. Light said.
Plans also include depicting Ronald at sporting events on the tray liners, creating a television show to be aired in U.S. schools with Ronald as a "motivator" to get kids to eat right and to be more active. Similar computer software is in the works.
Then there's Ronald's sense of humour. Mr. Light says it will resemble the comedy used in blockbuster movies Shrek and Finding Nemo, which resonates with children and adults. He would not elaborate. However, characters in those movies are known for double-entendres and pop-culture puns.
Alan Middleton, a marketing professor at York University, said he supports the humour change. "Kids are more sophisticated, younger. The naiveté which was around Ronald's basic activities and the characters doesn't play well with the modern young generation."
Meanwhile, McDonald's brass has been testing some of the image changes in Canada during the past year: Ronald recently snowboarded at an event in Whistler, B.C., skydived in Regina, and walked down the red carpet at the Much Music Video Awards in Toronto.
Ronald was created in 1963 in Washington, D.C., played by former NBC weatherman Willard Scott. While his general appearance looks similar today, the original Ronald featured a paper-cup nose and a box of fast food on his head. That costume hangs behind glass in a museum at Oak Brook's Hamburger University.
According to the 2001 book Fast Food Nation, 96 per cent of U.S. schoolchildren can identify Ronald McDonald. Only Santa Claus was more commonly recognized. "The impact of McDonald's on the way we live today is hard to overstate. The Golden Arches are now more widely recognized than the Christian cross," author Eric Schlosser writes.
In the popular 2004 documentary Super Size Me, which sought to prove the unhealthiness of McDonald's food, children couldn't identify pictures of Jesus, George Washington or George W. Bush, but easily recognized Ronald McDonald.
"You watch ..... It'll be amazing. When you use Ronald right, you'll get teenagers and young adults wanting their pictures with him," Mr. Light said.
Not so, says Chris Staples, the co-creative director at Vancouver advertising and design agency Rethink.
"They've tried this before with limited success," said Mr. Staples, who worked on McDonald's campaigns in the 1990s and handles the advertising for rival chain A&W.
He pointed to the unsuccessful launch of the chain's Arch Deluxe sandwich, which was targeted at adults and had Ronald doing "things aimed at adults" such as jumping off diving boards.
"He's such a loaded character and has so much baggage ..... the last way to make yourself cool with teenagers is to take the same clown you grew up with and try to make him hip for a 15-year-old."
Indeed, there's a risk Ronald could turn into a Poochie — an attitude-heavy character satirized on the cartoon The Simpsons that was supposed to bring a hip edge to the fictional kid's show Itchy and Scratchy. It bombed and the character was killed off that same episode.
Prof. Middleton said it's about time the company shook up Ronald's look.
"You've got to keep your character up to date," he said, noting that cereal mascots Snap, Crackle and Pop and Tony the Tiger have gone through makeovers. So has Barbie, to phenomenal sales success.
"The average kid isn't looking at the old familiar Ronald they've known for 20 years, they're looking at how Ronald compares with things in the world around them today. So this notion that you don't change it is nonsense, especially when you're dealing with a kids group," Prof. Middleton said.