If you grew up in the last couple of decades, chances are that you’re pretty familiar with “McDonaldland.” This is the fantasy kingdom depicted heavily in advertising for the McDonald’s fast food chain, and you can probably name all the characters by rote: Mayor McCheese, Grimace, the Hamburglar, and of course the clown Ronald McDonald, who has a recognition rate among kids second only to Santa Claus.
You may think McDonald’s invented this fantasy milieu. Actually you’d be wrong. The history of the “McDonaldland” concept is actually quite troubled, and involves…(GASP!) outright theft. It’s also an interesting chapter in American law and the history of advertising.
Here’s what happened. In the late 1960s, TV producers Sid & Marty Krofft, later to become even more famous for shows like Land of the Lost, created a kids’ TV series called H.R. Pufnstuf. The show debuted on NBC on September 6, 1969 and was an immediate hit. The show featured a young boy castaway on a magical island ruled by a friendly dragon, H.R. Pufnstuf, and lots of colorful characters, many played by dwarves. By 1970 H.R. Pufnstuf was the hottest kids’ show on television and advertisers up and down Madison Avenue wanted a piece of the show for licensing purposes. One of those Mad Men agencies was Needham, Harper & Steers, and they were courting the biggest account of all: McDonald’s.
The idea was to create a fantasyland similar to the visual and narrative style of Pufnstuf, but with characters specifically tooled to push McDonald’s fast food. The “mayor” of the island became Mayor McCheese. Grimace, Hamburglar and the other characters were spinoffs of the style of characters seen in the show. At first the Kroffts were thrilled. After all, they stood to gain a fair chunk of change from licensing rights. Then the ad agency called back and threw a wet towel on the plan. Sorry, guys, they said, but McDonald’s is going ahead without the Pufnstuf campaign.
This is an early (1971 or so) McDonaldland commercial. Warning: this video will steal your soul and give you nightmares.
As it turned out, this was a lie. McDonald’s was going ahead. The Needham firm charged full speed ahead, even going so far as to recruit former employees of the Krofft show to design costumes, provide voices and other tasks on the McDonaldland campaign. When McDonaldland commercials began running in January 1971, the Kroffts were appalled. McDonald’s had shamelessly stolen their intellectual property and given them nothing in return.
The Kroffts sued McDonald’s. What was the burger chain’s defense? Well, they aren’t exactly the same show. Some of the costumes and props were different. Um, yeah. And…well, some of the props are different. A little different.
The first court that heard the case awarded the Kroffts $50,000. That was only the start of McDonald’s troubles. As the case was appealed the judgment grew. In 1977, when the final appeal was heard by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the burger giant had to cough up over $1 million, not an insignificant sum in the late 1970s. Unfortunately, though, they could continue using the campaign, which had by now become iconic the world over. The real H.R. Pufnstuf show went off the air in 1972.
McDonald’s, which came out of the Southern California “car culture” of the late 1950s, is becoming increasingly anachronistic in the 21st century.
Of course, time and the modern world haven’t been kind to McDonald’s or Ronald’s fantasy kingdom. Amidst a growing backlash against fast food chains in general, and McDonald’s in particular, for labor abuses, corporate and cultural imperialism and the rise of childhood obesity, McDonald’s got less and less bang for their advertising buck throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The last McDonaldland-themed promotion ran in 2003. Since then the company has steadfastly resisted retiring the sole survivor of the franchise, Ronald McDonald, who had existed prior to the Pufnstuf debacle. Although modern market analysis shows that Ronald McDonald ads no longer work and the scary red clown is as passé as bell bottoms, the company still trots him out to push grossly unhealthy foods to kids, despite the fact that the sun set on McDonaldland for the last time a decade ago.
If you, like me, always found McDonaldland a bit creepy, consider the implications of cosmic karma that come from the realization that this happy world was created by an act of theft for money. Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, doesn’t it? *burp*