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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How Frozen Peas Made Orson Welles Lose It
Rebecca O'Connell (Getty Images) (iStock)
Rebecca O'Connell (Getty Images) (iStock)

Orson Welles would have turned 103 years old today. While the talented actor/director/writer leaves behind a staggering body of work—including Citizen Kane, long regarded as the best film of all time—the YouTube generation may know him best for what happened when a couple of voiceover directors decided to challenge him while recording an ad for Findus frozen foods in 1970.

The tempestuous Welles is having none of it. You’d do yourself a favor to listen to the whole thing, but here are some choice excerpts.

After he was asked for one more take from the audio engineer:

"Look, I’m not used to having more than one person in there. One more word out of you and you go! Is that clear? I take directions from one person, under protest … Who the hell are you, anyway?"

After it was explained to him that the second take was requested because of a “slight gonk”:

"What is a 'gonk'? Do you mind telling me what that is?"

After the director asks him to emphasize the “in” while saying “In July”:

"Why? That doesn't make any sense. Sorry. There's no known way of saying an English sentence in which you begin a sentence with 'in' and emphasize it. … That's just stupid. 'In July?' I'd love to know how you emphasize 'in' in 'in July.' Impossible! Meaningless!"

When the session moved from frozen peas to ads for fish fingers and beef burgers, the now-sheepish directors attempt to stammer out some instructions. Welles's reply:

"You are such pests! ... In your depths of your ignorance, what is it you want?"

Why would the legendary director agree to shill for a frozen food company in the first place? According to author Josh Karp, whose book Orson Welles’s Last Movie chronicles the director’s odyssey to make a “comeback” film in the 1970s, Welles acknowledged the ad spots were mercenary in nature: He could demand upwards of $15,000 a day for sessions, which he could use, in part, to fund his feature projects.

“Why he dressed down the man, I can't say for sure,” Karp says. “But I know that he was a perfectionist and didn't suffer fools, in some cases to the extreme. He used to take a great interest in the ads he made, even when they weren't of his creation.”

The Findus session was leaked decades ago, popping up on radio and in private collections before hitting YouTube. Voiceover actor Maurice LaMarche, who voiced the erudite Brain in Pinky and the Brain, based the character on Welles and would recite his rant whenever he got the chance.

Welles died in 1985 at the age of 70 from a heart attack, his last film unfinished. While some saw the pea endorsement as beneath his formidable talents, he was actually ahead of the curve: By the 1980s, many A-list stars were supplementing their income with advertising or voiceover work.

“He was a brilliant, funny guy,” Karp says. “There's a good chance he'd think the pea commercial was hilarious.” If not, he’d obviously have no problem saying as much.

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How Google Chrome’s New Built-In Ad Blocker Will Change Your Browsing Experience
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If you can’t stand web ads that auto-play sound and pop up in front of what you’re trying to read, you have two options: Install an ad blocker on your browser or avoid the internet all together. Starting Thursday, February 15, Google Chrome is offering another tool to help you avoid the most annoying ads on the web, Tech Crunch reports. Here’s what Google Chrome users should expect from the new feature.

Chrome’s ad filtering has been in development for about a year, but the details of how it will work were only recently made public. “While most advertising on the web is respectful of user experience, over the years we've increasingly heard from our users that some advertising can be particularly intrusive,” Google wrote in a blog post. “As we announced last June, Chrome will tackle this issue by removing ads from sites that do not follow the Better Ads Standards.

That means the new feature won’t block all ads from publishers or even block most of them. Instead, it will specifically target ads that violate the Better Ad Standards that the Coalition for Better Ads recommends based on consumer data. On desktop, this includes auto-play videos with sound, sticky banners that follow you as you scroll, pop-ups, and prestitial ads that make you wait for a countdown to access the site. Mobile Chrome users will be spared these same types of ads as well as flashing animations, ads that take up more than 30 percent of the screen, and ads the fill the whole screen as you scroll past them.

These criteria still leave room for plenty of ads to show up online—the total amount of media blocked by the feature won’t even amount to 1 percent of all ads. So if web browsers are looking for an even more ad-free experience, they should use Chrome’s ad filter as a supplement to one of the many third-party ad blockers out there.

And if accessing content without navigating a digital obstacle course first doesn’t sound appealing to you, don’t worry: On sites where ads are blocked, Google Chrome will show a notification that lets you disable the feature.

[h/t Tech Crunch]

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