There is no established relationship between clowns and fast food. Sure, people portraying clowns may order it in their free time, but you don’t go to the circus to see Chuckles dance around in oversized red shoes, honk his red nose, and chow down on a cheeseburger.
Yet everyone blindly accepts Ronald McDonald, one of the most famous clowns—and people—in the world, as the mascot for McDonald’s. Granted, this is partially because Ronald has held the role for over 50 years. I’d bet some people barely register that he is a clown, considering the goofy, nose-honking behavior clowns are generally known for.
But what inspired McDonald’s to make a clown the face of their fast food empire? Funnily enough, it was another clown: Bozo.
Bozo the Clown was the star of several television shows during the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s (the character was a franchise, so local TV stations across the country could produce their own Bozo-themed shows—fitting, since McDonald’s would also find success through franchises). At the time, advertising executive Barry Klein worked with the Bozo show in Washington, D.C. and a local McDonald’s franchise, so he convinced the McDonald’s to run commercials during the show, the Baltimore Sun reports.
Unfortunately, the show was canceled in 1963, but Klein saw an opportunity to capitalize on Bozo’s popularity: McDonald’s could create their own clown. Klein brought the actor who had played Bozo, Willard Scott, onto the project, and soon the clown came to life. His nose was a McDonald’s cup, his hat a food tray holding a fake burger, bag of fries, and milkshake. He could even pull hamburgers from his belt. His name? Ronald McDonald, the Hamburger-Happy Clown.
Ronald appeared in just three commercials in the D.C. area before McDonald’s executives decided to bring him into the national spotlight. They hired Ringling Brothers clown Michael “Coco” Polakovs to give the character a makeover. The result was the look we all know today: a yellow jumpsuit, representing the golden arches, with red-and-white stripes, just like the restaurant’s colors. These are the bizarre rules behind playing the role of Ronald McDonald.
And the clown’s popularity only grew from there. According to Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, the only fictional character with a higher degree of recognition than Ronald McDonald is Santa Claus. But in the eyes of McDonald’s, Ronald has the same level of mystique and childhood wonder as the jolly old elf. When asked how many actors portray the clown, an executive replied, “There’s only one Ronald.” Next, read up on how the McDonald’s menu has changed over the years.