Ronald was debuted to American audiences in 1963, when actor Willard Scott portrayed the fast food clown on a commercial that aired regionally in the D.C. area. Scott's Ronald was a clown conglomeration of McDonald's items, according to Chew on This: Everything You Didn't Want to Know About Fast Food by Eric Schlosser. Ronald wore a tray with a hamburger, fries and a milkshake on his head, a branded paper cup on his nose and a tray on his belt that constantly refilled with hamburgers. Odd.
Two years after his D.C. appearance, Ronald made his national debut in a commercial aired during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. However, Scott lost the gig because he was, ironically, too overweight.
"McDonald's wanted someone thinner to sell its burgers, shakes and fries," wrote Schlosser. A "slender, silent" Ronald followed in Scott's footsteps and soon became a national sensation, encouraging kids to ask their parents if they could eat out at McDonald's for dinner.
In the book Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, also by Schlosser, he explains how Ronald is just part of McDonald's scheme to make kids adore its products — in addition to the indoor playgrounds in McDonald's restaurants and its Happy Meal toys. Through bright colors, a fun atmosphere and "little pieces of food wrapped up like a present," by the late 1960s McDonald's had succeeded in appealing to kids as young as toddlers.
Ten actors have officially played Ronald, but McDonald's is oddly mysterious about Ronald's persona. "McDonald's doesn't like to acknowledge that Ronald McDonald isn't real," Business Insider wrote in 2014. "The company, based in Oak Brook, Illinois, wouldn't answer when asked repeatedly by the AP in 2011 how many actors it uses to portray the clown. 'There's only one Ronald,' an executive said." Strange.
Odder yet, the iconic comical ambassador of french fries and Big Macs doesn't publicly consume his own product. "We are not predators," McDonald's CEO Don Thompson said at a May 2014 shareholders meeting, directly responding to criticism of Ronald enticing children into eating unhealthfully. "We have been marketing responsibly. You don't see Ronald McDonald eating food. You never see Ronald in schools." Maybe not, but catching a red and yellow flash of the McDouble abstainer isn't hard for kids watching TV commercials before or after school, nor for those who drive past the golden arches during their commute.
Beyond criticism for his sleuth luring techniques, Ronald McDonald has fetched plenty of flak for its languid philanthropy. Reports have shown that his namesake, the Ronald McDonald House Charities, collects donations mainly from outside organizations, with McDonald's contributing a minimal amount to its own charity.
In 2014, McDonald's announced that the somehow still slender Ronald McDonald (perhaps he kept his physique from never actually biting into a McNugget) would get a major costume change into yellow cargo pants and a red blazer. Trendy!
"He remains the embodiment of McDonald's dedication to the happiness and well-being of people worldwide and also helps kids learn in a fun way about important subjects, such as fire safety, exercise, health and hygiene, anti-bullying, self-esteem and literacy," McDonald's wrote in a news release announcing Ronald's makeover. Ironic, considering how the brand has duped adults into feeding children junk food for decades.