Man in the Moon: How Mac Tonight Became the Burger King

It’s the kind of thing that comes to you in the depths of a raging fever: a man with a crescent moon-shaped head, dapper tuxedo, and sunglasses playing the piano while perched on top of a two-story-tall hamburger.

His name was Mac Tonight, and he emerged from brainstorming sessions at the ad agency of Davis, Johnson, Mogul & Colombatto (DJMC). McDonald’s franchisees in Southern California had come to the firm in 1986 complaining of stalled sales at their restaurants, particularly during dinnertime hours. McDonald’s national campaign, a $550 million annual venture handled mostly by the mammoth Leo Burnett agency, was relying on nuclear families and the familiar, painted face of Ronald McDonald. For many operators, though, it just wasn’t working.

Brad Ball, president of DJMC, and creative director Peter Coutroulis weighed their options. Ball was incredibly fond of “Mack the Knife,” a tune first written for a 1928 German opera and popularized by singer Bobby Darin in 1959. He listened to Darin’s version over and over, along with covers by Frank Sinatra and Liberace. The song was close to being perfect for McDonald’s, he thought, but it needed some kind of twist—something that would stand out.

At the time, Max Headroom was an advertising and cultural phenomenon, a bizarrely-sculptured character sporting shades and exaggerated features. Eventually, Ball and Coutroulis settled on the moon-faced Mac Tonight, a hipster crooner existing in a weird dreamscape who could appeal to adults and reinforce the idea that McDonald’s was the place to be after hours.

YouTube // Isabella Zilla

DJMC hired actor Doug Jones, a lanky performer who later appeared as Abe Sapien in 2004’s Hellboy, and shot a series of commercials intended for the Los Angeles area. The tune to “Mack the Knife” stayed, but the lyrics were tweaked:

When the clock strikes / half past six babe / time to head for golden lights / It’s a good time / for a great taste / Dinner at McDonald’s / It’s Mac Tonight!

The four spots began airing in late 1986 throughout California, Oregon, Las Vegas, and Phoenix. The segments, which cost a total of $500,000 to produce, were abstract, jazzy, and a far cry from Ronald McDonald’s Technicolor adventures: Mac soared through clouds and even in space, passing a "big dipper"—a McNugget with sauce. The campaign caught on immediately, with some restaurants in California reporting a double-digit increase in sales. “Mack the Knife” was familiar to baby boomers, a demographic the brand wasn’t used to courting; the fresh take was paying off.

At a national franchisee convention the following year, operators crowded around monitors to get a glimpse of Mac; in-store appearances from employees wearing a fiberglass head drew crowds of up to 1500 people. (Anticipating kids clamoring for a piece of Mac, the glasses were held on with Velcro.) As word began to spread of his impact on the bottom line, McDonald’s headquarters in Oak Park, Illinois took notice. This crescent-brained singer could have national appeal.

On August 21, 1987, Mac arrived at a Boca Raton McDonald’s in a limo. Strutting out, he was hoisted to the restaurant’s roof, where he sang, danced, and played the piano. “I describe him as a cool dude,” said Anita Fraunce, a McDonald’s marketing manager. The corporation dismissed the idea that “Mack the Knife,” ostensibly about a murderer, was inappropriate for fast food ads. “The lyrics are well known and the song merely symbolizes the music of the ‘60s,” said national marketing vice president David Green.   

Mac’s appearance in Florida was the official launch of a national advertising campaign. For six weeks, Mac's ads were in heavy rotation across the country. Viewers wondered whether Sammy Davis Jr. was doing the singing. (He wasn’t, but the company never revealed who did.) Big Mac sales reached record highs; one company representative teased that Mac would never again be seen after October.

Of course, it was a bluff. Mac’s inaugural ads were so successful that Jones was hired to do a total of 27 spots; toys began popping up in Happy Meals. That fall, Mac was pegged as one of the most identifiable brand characters in the country. Word was that the moon man could finally be the mascot to fill Ronald’s sizable shoes.

YouTube // Keisuke Hoashi

But Mac’s run at the title would prove to be short-lived. In October 1989, the estate of the late Bobby Darin (he died after heart surgery in 1973) sued McDonald’s, claiming the company had appropriated Darin’s “style” without permission. They asked for $10 million in damages. While the Darins wound up dropping the suit [PDF], the proceedings stalled out Mac’s astral trips.

The character reappeared briefly in 1996 and 1997 before largely being relegated to McDonald’s memorabilia collectors. While a version rendered in CGI sometimes appears in foreign ads, his profile in the States has been virtually erased. If not for the Darin family’s litigation, perhaps Mac could have gone on to change the course of fast food advertising forever. As it stands, we’ll never know who the true burger king could have been.

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John G. Mabanglo/Getty Images
The iMac Was Almost Called the MacMan
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John G. Mabanglo/Getty Images

After breaking out with its Macintosh line of personal computers in the 1980s, Apple was in a slump. Sales had flagged as Microsoft's Windows operating system made waves. In 1998, the company was set to unveil a product that it hoped would reinvigorate its brand.

And they almost blew it.

According to Ken Segall, the advertising genius behind their "Think Different" campaign, Apple founder Steve Jobs was expecting the iMac to reverse the company's ailing fortunes. Where older Macs had been boxy, beige, and bland, the iMac came in an assortment of colors and had a transparent chassis that showed off its circuitry. The problem, as Segall writes in his new book, Insanely Simple, was that Jobs didn't want to call it the iMac. He wanted to call it the MacMan.

"While that frightening name is banging around in your head, I'd like you to think for a moment about the art of product naming," Segall writes. "Because of all the things in this world that cry out for simplicity, product naming probably contains the most glaring examples of right and wrong. From some companies, you see names like 'iPhone.' From others you see names like ‘Casio G'zOne Commando' or the ‘Sony DVP SR200P/B' DVD player."

According to Segall, Jobs liked the fact that MacMan was slightly reminiscent of Sony's Walkman branding concept for its line of cassette players. (Later, Sony had a Discman, Pressman, and Talkman.) But Segall, who named products for a living, feared the name would take away from Apple's identity as being original. It was also gender-biased, and alienating an entire demographic of consumers was never a good thing.

Instead, Segall suggested "iMac," with the "i" for internet, because the unit was designed to connect easily to the web. Jobs "hated" the idea, along with other suggestions, even though Segall felt the iMac could provide a foundation to name other devices, just as Sony's Walkman had. Segall kept suggesting it, and Jobs eventually had it printed on a prototype model to see how it would look. After encouragement from his staff, he dropped MacMan. With this key contribution, Segall made sure no one would be lining up to buy a PhoneMan 10 years later. 

[h/t FastCoDesign]

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Warner Bros./iStock
The Bizarre Reason Burger King Wants to Keep It Out of Russia
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Warner Bros./iStock

For decades, Burger King and McDonald’s have been engaged in one of the most competitive corporate rivalries in fast food history. In the 1980s, the two actually went to court over accusations about Burger King's sourcing and preparation of meats. In 2016, a BK restaurant in Queens, New York, was draped in sheets and made to look like the ghost of McDonald’s.

The sniping continues, but this time McDonald’s isn’t really involved. According to The Hollywood Reporter and coming our way via Eater, the Russian branch of Burger King has filed a complaint with the country’s Federal Anti-Monopoly Service (FAS) over the recent horror blockbuster It. The reason? They claim the movie’s evil clown, Pennywise, is so reminiscent of Ronald McDonald that the release will constitute an unfair advertising opportunity for their competitor.

While this sounds like either a prank or publicity stunt hatched by Burger King’s marketing arm, the FAS confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter that the burger chain did indeed request the movie be banned. That doesn’t mean it’s not a marketing ploy—there must be economic advantages to comparing a chief competitor’s mascot to a child-murdering clown—but it does offer some substance to the claim. The FAS told the outlet that it “can’t be concerned” with a fictional character in a movie that has nothing to do with hamburgers, but hasn’t made any final decision.

Owing to the recent scary-clown hysteria, McDonald’s has actually dialed down Ronald’s appearances in public over the past two years, which does raise suspicion over what he’s been doing with his downtime. It: Chapter Two is scheduled to infuriate Burger King even more when it’s released in 2019.

[h/t Eater]  


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