Kids love him. But what do they know? The rise and rise of Ronald McDonald

By John Vidal

The Observer; 6 April 1997

TOTTENHAM. 23 August, 1996: Ronald McDonald's white Cadillac sweeps through rain-soaked, down at-heel north London. When it arrives at Tower Gardens playschool, it is met by a group of quiet, overawed children clutching their parents' hands. Ronald, an advertising spokesman for the world's largest hamburger company, has been invited to the playschool's fun day. Parents have made sandwiches and teas and more than 200 people are expected. Pickles the clown has been twisting balloons into sausage dogs and amusing the children before Ronald arrives. She will not try to compete.

When the world's best-known clown gets out of the chauffeur-held door. children attach themselves to his legs. By the time he is in the corridor, there are screams of excitement. In minutes, he has 60 children sitting in front of him. Ronald starts his act: 'Hello my little fries,' he says. I'm Ronnie. Hands up those of you who have seen me before.' There's an instant forest. The younger children are unsure what to make of him. Ronnie, who does several shows a day, tells them he will do magic for them. His audience is spellbound.

Nine or 10 smart, clean-cut men and women in blue uniforms and white shirts stand at the back of the hall. The men are mostly bull-necked, buttoned-down and quiet. Some look ill at ease among the bouncy castles and the handwritten signs saying 'No racism', 'No bullying', and 'No hiding in the bushes'. Some have their arms folded. They refuse to give their names, except to say they work for McDonald's. A woman with hair tightly tied back talks into a mobile phone. She smiles at anyone who she thinks is a parent.

McDonald's has promised a 500 donation, advertised the show in the local paper and brought balloons, orange juice and promotional materials. For a cash strapped playgroup it's a godsend. But not for aH the parents. Suna Mohamed is furious. What began as a children's fun day, she says, has become a McDonald's promotion. Many parents who read the publicity thought the event had been organised by McDonald's and not by them Besides, she says, half the money goes to pay for a marquee which McDonald's staf have taken over. 'The only culture on offer to our children here is the opportunity to purchase a burger. It's degrading.'

As Ronald starts his act, another is tak ing place at the back of the hall. Towe, Gardens playscheme is where Dave Mor ris's son, Charlie, goes to school.

LARGE MAN: (to Morris) Who are you?
MORRIS: (to large man) Who are you?
LARGE MAN: It doesn't matter what m! name is. I'm following orders.
MORRIS: Who from?
(Enter Large Man Two) LARGE MAN TWO: Okay, what is the problem?
MORRIS: Where are you from?
LARGE MAN TWO: Have you had an invitation?
MORRIS: This is my son's playscheme.
LARGE MAN TWO: Can someone call the police?
MORRIS: What's your name?
LARGE MAN TWO: It doesn't matter.

A policeman arrives flanked by McDonald's men and asks Morris for a word. Morris says no, he intends to watoh the show with his son. thank you. He sits in the middle of the children. At the front, Ronnie is playing a blinder. "Have we said hello to the policeman children?"

QUITE WHEN McDonald's identified children as the main arteries of its operation is not clear. Ray Kroc. The archetypal little man who in 1954 saw through the golden arches of the McDonald brothers to unparalleled wealth, immediately recognised the power of the young to influence adults, and that McDonald's food appealed to the unsophisticated child's palate. The bright red and yellow of the sign, the strong simple tastes. the fun factor of eating unselfconsciously in public, the brightlights, even the speed and the quick, undemanding encounter between staffand customer, were all attractive to the young,

And Kroc knew how to get through to children Ten miHion kids responded to his first national advertising campaign A great deal of study, he wrote, went into creating the appearance and personality of Ronald McDonald. right down to the colour and texture of the wig. Kroc loved Ronald as a way to advertise his burgers. He knew it was the kids who decided where to eat in three out of four families. Kroc offered them other characters from McDonaldland - the Hamburglar. Mayor McCheese, the Fry Kids. But Ronald was always the favourite. In 1986. the corporation claimed 96 per cent of children it poHed could identify Ronald. Only Santa Claus did better.

Kroc always wanted McDonald's to be seen as a good corporate citizen, and Ronald became the embodiment of that wish. The first Ronald McDonald House opened in 1974. These are built next to hospitals and provide accommodation for families of children with serious illnesses. There are now 166 worldwide, including three in Britain. All McDonald's comrnunity involvement revolves around children - child welfare, education, youth-related social issues and environment, says the McDonald's Fact Book. The figures seem impressive:, Ronald McDonald Children's Charities has given grants of more than $100 million since it started in 1984. In that time. the corporation has made approxiamately $9 billion net profit on a turnover of more than $60bn. Put another way, for every $60 that McDonald's turns over, it donates one cent to children.

THE SMALL TOWN of San Bernadino on the edge of the California desert was an unlikely place for a burger bar to be ringing up $250,000 in the early Fifties. Ray Kroc had gone there to sell milkshake mixers. But as he watohed the two McDonald brothers and their helpers in their; spiffy white shirts and paper hats, bustling around like ants at a picnic... and a steady procession of customers lock" stepping up to the windows', he had a vision of riches. He liked what he saw. He liked the set of arches and che neons, but mostly he liked the idea of the place. Here was a restaurant stripped to the basics of service and choice. Everything was prepared on the assembly line basis - speed, volume, low price. It was the food equivalent of the Model T. Kroc told the brothers he wanted in'.

Kroc also liked the name. McDonald's harked back soothingly to a nursery rhyme. The name appealed to the six-year" old mind, just as the food appealed to the six-year-old palate. 'I had a feeling it would be one of those promotable names that would catoh the public fancy,' Kroc later wrote. But the brothers McDonald were by all accounts fussy and parsimonious. They were happy vvith their fat profits and not at all enthusiastic about their new partner's involvement.

But Kroc was tenacious. He did a deal for the rights to license McDonald's operations across the US. He wanted all rights, copyrights, formulas, trademarks, the Golden Arches and the name. He offered $500,000. He ended up paying $2.7 million which he didn't have. At the last, if only to rub salt in the open wound of Kroc's bank balance, the McDonald brothers insisted on keeping the original store. It 'forced me into grinding it out. grunting and sweating Iike a galley slave for every inch of progress'. Kroc's response, in the end, was to open his own McDonald's right across the street from the original and run the brothers out of business.

Kroc moved back to Chicago in 1955 and founded the McDonald's ccrporation. That summer, he opened his first restaurant outside the city. His first operations manual, in 1953, spelt out how the new fran" chises should be run. Operators were told precisely how to grill or fry. Exact cooking times and temperatures were stated. Portions were fixed down to half ounces of onions and 32 slices per pound of cheese. The basic hamburger patty was to weigh 1.6 ounces and measure 3.85 inches in diameter, containing no more than 21 per cent fat. iGrill men' had to move left to right, put out six rows of burgers, flip the third row first, then the fourth, fifth and sixth. The burger appealed because there was only one way to prepare it. It was a simple product. Kroc wanted a standard menu, one-sized portions, same prices, same quality everywhere.

Burger culture was born and it carried with it all the trappings of a developing belief system. McDonald's was to become like a relig on to many who worked there, with Kroc's disciples described as 'revert ing' his principles. Kroc wrote that 'the french fry would become almost sacro sanct' for him, its preparation 'a ritual to be followed relig ously. The Big Mac was the communion wafer of the consumer society and Kroc, not a churchman, wrote of 'faith in McDonald's as if it were a religion... I've often said that I believe in God, family, and McDonald's... and in the office, that order is reversed'. This quasi-religious feeling was crucial in hiring and firing personnel. Image was vital. People in contact with customers had to be seen as fall American boys', 'McDonald's men'. 'They must display such desirable traits as sincerity, enthusiasm, confidence and a sense of humour.' As the one time dean of Hamburger University - where McDon ald's trains its senior staff - put it: 'It gets so your blood turns to ketohup.' One in 10 Americans are believed to have got their first job at a McDonald's. It has employed more than 10 million people.

The system may also be said to breed a fierce competitiveness and suspicion oi opposition. Kroc wrote: 'Fortunately we don't have too many begrudgers in thE McDonald's organisation. Their style doesn't suit ours, and they don't sta around long.' But as Kroc readily admit ted, plenty of his 'initiates' were w fling to go the other way. 'I have had people w tl: us who seriously proposed that we plan spies in the operations of our competition Can you imagine? Next thing we'd learr that Ronald McDonald is a double agent My response to that kind of claptrap ha always been that you can learn all yot eer need to know about the competition s operation by looking in his garbage cans. I am not above that... more than once, at two o clock in the morning, I have sorted through a competitor's garbage.

It's a tacky image - the Hamburger King prying through binbags, and usually as a corporation. McDonald's tries harder to put its best face forward. Though, as Court 35 of the High Court in London was to hear in the McLibel Trial. the corporahon admitted planting spies in the small environmental organisation it is suing for claiming that rainforests were cleared to make way for cattle ranges that supplied McDonald's. Then as now, image was all, and anyone tarnishing it met a fierce response. Kroc said: 'I get mad as hell and cuss when someone takes cheap shots at McDonald's or me in print.' Kroc cussed a lot in his later years.

Protest has come from many sources, and McDonald's responses were often both defensive and aggressive. When Fortune magazine published an arhcle criticising the spoiling of suburban views in the US by McDonald's arches, the company retorted: 'Uninterrupted scenery, too, can get pretty monotonous.'

Sometimes, the corporation appeared at best insensitive. When it opened in Japan, with the memories of the war still very much alive, McDonald's chose Hiroshima, close to where the first atom bomb exploded. The president of McDonald's Japanese operations, Den Fujita, gave the relationship a further twist, declaring: 'The reason Japanese people are so short and have yellow skins is because they have eaten nothing but fish and rice for 2,000 years. If we eat McDonald's hamburgers and potatoes for 1,000 years, we will become taller, our skin will become white and our hair will be blond.'

And no doubt they will conquer the world. The corporation claims to feed 33 million people a day. Its 20,000 restaurants in 101 countries are just the start: it intends to add up to 3,200 restaurants a year - one every three hours. Two-thirds of the new openings are to be outside the US.

The arches can have a dramadc effect on communities. When Ronald McDonald vaulted the Iron Curtain, Muscovites greeted him as a kind of liberator, the advance guard of freedom and choice. They queued to hand over a week's wages for a burger and fries, the mytl.uc new foods that fed their dreams. For a short fume, burgers became a black-market currency.

Customer love cannot always be measured in terms of size, though. The corporation conducted a survey in Britain in 1991 only to find that its own customers characterised the company as 'insensitive', 'loud', 'brash, 'American', 'complacent', 'uncaring', 'insincere', 'suspicious' end 'arrogant'. That didn't stop McDonald's writing to Mrs Mary Blair, however.

Mrs Blair has a small shop in Fenny Stratford, in Buckinghamshire. She does a good line in sandwiches but sells no burgers or french fries. In 1996. she commissioned a sign to be put outside. She liked the word Munchies and thought that because she was Scottish, she would add 'Mc'. Her sign was to be the national flag of Scotland - a blue cross on a white background.

Last September, she got a letter from McDonald's. Unless she took down her sign within 14 days, it said, the McDonald's corporation of Chicago (turnover $30 billion a year) would sue. McDonald's is touchy about the prefix Mc and has the trademark on it. Effectively anyone who uses 'Mc' for a food establishment runs the risk of a letter from the corporation.

Mrs Blair was furious. How could anyone stop her using 'Mc'? Did that mean the corporation owned half the names in Scotland and Ireland? 'Do they really imagine I am a threat to their business?' she asked. Far from acknowledging her point that the corporation had, perhaps, lost its perspective. McDonald's insisted the sign must go.

When it comes to restaurants. McDonald's effectively owns 'Mc', it owns 'McD', it owns the arches, it even has a say on the colours red and yellow when associated w th restaurants; it owns colourable imitations of itself. Iogos and anything that is distinctive of McDonald's restaurants. In the US, McDonald's and its affiliates have at least 70 protected names. designs, logos, slogans, numbers and combinations of letters that no one else may use. They include 'Royal', 'You', 'McFamily', 'McKids, 'McNuggets', 'Lift Kids To A Better Tomorrow', and the very long 'Twoallbeefpattiesspecialsaucelettucecheesepickles onionsonasesameseedbun'.

Meanwhile. the list of people who have had to apologise to McDonald's gets longer. In the four years before writs were served on the British env ronmental campaigners. at least 40 publications in Britain alone received letters from the corporation threatening to sue them. Ray Kroc died in 1984. He had been a nononsense small businessman who got lucky. He'd spent too long at the bottom of the pile to countenance anything that might stop him getting to the top. He saw his success as America's and vice versa, and anyone who opposed him opposed the whole system that had made him rich and kept so many people poor. 'I feel sorry for people who have such a small and wretohed v ew of the system that made this country great,' he would say of people who opposed his stores.

As Dave Morris, one of the two environmentalists being sued in the McLibel trial, and the man approached by police at his son's playgroup, says: 'It's lucky they only sell sell hamburgers."

This is an extract from 'McLibel'by John Vidal, published by Macmillan on 18 April at 15.99.
To order your copy, call Observer Interactive on 0500 500171


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