Taco Bell is Clowning Around

Taco Bell's new breakfast food

Taco Bell is Clowning Around
| Published March 27, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

If your first name is Ronald and your last name is McDonald, you may have faced torment as a child and teen, and suffered a few unpleasant jokes as an adult. After all, who wants to have the same name as the iconic clown linked for over 40 years to the world’s biggest fast food restaurant?

After perhaps Bozo the Clown and a few of the creepy clown-like characters in horror movies (think of Pennywise in Stephen King’s It), Ronald McDonald is arguably the most famous clown of the 20th Century.

Fun fact for your next appearance on the TV show Jeopardy: Ronald McDonald, the retail brand clown, was first introduced by McDonald’s in the fall of 1963 and was originally played by Willard Scott. Yes, that Willard Scott.

It’s all in a name. Imagine being listed in the phone book as Bill Gates or George Bush. Still, growing up in the 1960s, 70s or 80s with the same name as a jovial clown who hawks hamburgers, Egg McMuffins and Happy Meals must have been torture for some people.

But now, thanks to an advertising agency working on new image spots for fast food rival Taco Bell, if your name is “Ronald” and “McDonald” you could earn some extra money and fame as a spokesperson just for making an appearance as…yourself. That is, as Ronald McDonald.

The new advertisements will begin airing this week and throughout the weekend, and will even contain a tiny disclaimer—meant to be read as both a legal disclosure as well as an ironic jab—that the “Ronald McDonald” portrayed in the 30 second commercial is not affiliated in any way with McDonald’s Corporation. The “Ronald McDonalds” appearing in the Taco Bell spots, the fine print will say, are paid spokespersons.

The men shown in the ads will appear as themselves (not in clown regalia) as they try breakfast foods from Taco Bell’s newly revamped menu.

Taco Bell is owned by Yum Brands of Louisville, Kentucky. Yum Brands, which also owns Kentucky Fried Chicken, Wing Street, Pizza Hut and several other restaurants (it sold its controlling stake in Long John Silver’s in 2011), is looking for ways to take a bigger slice of the breakfast market—a time slot which has become far more competitive over the last decades.

McDonald’s dominates the breakfast market with its highly popular morning menu and its coffee. It has led breakfast sales in sales in the U.S. for decades.  Hardees and Burger King also offer breakfast items and have aggressively courted the appetites of morning commuters in the U.S.

Taco Bell hopes to gain some of that rich breakfast action. Starting this week Taco Bell will open most locations early, rolling out a breakfast menu which will include a half dozen specialized items, including breakfast burritos and its new “Waffle Taco,” which Yum believes may eventually rival some of McDonald’s products.  The menu will also include coffee, orange juice and small cinnamon doughnuts.

The ad agency which developed the campaign located hundreds of American men with the name Ronald McDonald, and the new TV and print ads will portray them enjoying breakfast items from Taco Bell’s new morning menu.

McDonald’s has used its Ronald McDonald character in both live action and cartoon forms, more-or-less continuously, since its debut in 1963. But the likeable, burger-loving clown eventually faced criticism in the mid-1990s from parents’ groups and consumer advocates concerned that Ronald McDonald was being used to shape the eating habits of children and teens. Concerns about an increase in childhood obesity in the U.S., coupled with better and more definitive medical data, showed a direct link between fast food and weight gain—in adults and children. McDonald’s began to lessen the role of the clown in its advertising through he is still used for a variety of PR projects, including in its Ronald McDonald House facilities and activities.

More fun facts which have nothing to do with Taco Bell:

Besides Willard Scott, other actors who have portrayed Ronald McDonald over the years include Bev Bergeron, who handled the role in the mid-1960s, actor George Voorhis, who took on the role for 20 years (primarily in material produced on the West Coast and in thousands of live appearances), and actor Robert King Moody (also known for his frequent guest appearances on Get Smart, Dragnet and Bonanza), who portrayed Ronald in hundreds of TV spots, print ads and live appearances from 1975 to 1984.

From 1984 to 1991 Ronald McDonald was portrayed by actor Squire Fridell, best known for his longstanding role as “Toyota Man” in over a thousand television and print ads for the automaker. Fridell was also a frequent guest star on M*A*S*H and Newhart. He is also widely known in television and industry circles for his book Acting in Television Commercials for Fun and Profit, a likeable how-to book that has been in print for over 30 years.

Some believe Fridell may hold the American record for most TV commercial appearances ever, with a total of 3250 TV spots filmed for broadcast in the U.S. and Canada.