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'Teflon Ron': Good luck firing this clown

Ronald McDonald is an enduring symbol

Ronald McDonald is an enduring symbol Credit: Getty

A retirement party for Ronald McDonald? Don’t buy the Golden Arches spokesman that gold watch just yet.

The heated fight to fire McDonald’s clown spokesman is futile because Ronald is among an elite group of resilient icons born of an influential advertising era, marketing experts said.

The clown — who first forayed into fast-food hawking in 1963 — and colleagues such as Tony the Tiger for Frosted Flakes have only continued to strengthen as brands, experts said.

“Say what you will about McDonald’s food and its health benefits, but the fact [is they’ve] invested time and money and talent into buttressing the validity of Ronald McDonald,” said branding consultant Rob Frankel. “They’d be throwing out a seriously valuable trademark.”

McDonald’s spends about $400 million a year marketing Ronald, said Juliana Shulman of Corporate Accountability International, the watchdog group spearheading the campaign to can him. He represents “predatory marketing of junk food to kids,” Shulman said. “Ronald McDonald is as recognizable as Santa Claus.”

It’s his ubiquity and staying power, however, that makes him a “teflon target,” Frankel said.

No new advertising iconography rivals that, he said.

“Most of them can’t stand up to the brands of the ‘50s and ‘60s,” he said. “In the old days, guys understood what brand strategy really was. In the past couple generations, we’ve been taken over by media savants who just buy ad space and pray.”

Kid-friendly spokescartoons such as Cap’n Crunch, often blasted for hawking sugary cereals, are so poignant that they’re now used in “retro branding,” Frankel said.

The tactic targets parents — rather than the kids themselves — and capitalizes on nostalgia, said Chris Anderson, of the Marketing Arm. The mascots have successfully kept up with the times, introducing sleeker designs and using social media, he said.

“When you see these characters, you not only know the product they’re tied to — hamburgers or cereal — but you have an emotional reaction or memory,” Anderson said. “You remember eating the cereal as a kid while watching morning cartoons or sitting at McDonald’s with your little Happy Meal.”

Such powerful triggers associated with Ronald, however unhealthy his products, would leave his clown shoes nearly impossible to fill, experts said.

McDonald’s CEO Jim Skinner has defended his red-tressed trademark and has no plans to sack him, calling Ronald an “ambassador for good” and evoking his namesake charitable houses for children with illnesses.

Still, Corporate Accountability International bought full-page ads in U.S. newspapers last week calling for the clown’s head. And research from  Ace Metrix has shows that Ronald is no longer an effective commercial spokesman, more “creepy” than convincing.

At least New Yorkers interviewed Wednesday had words that wouldn’t make the clown grimace.

“He doesn't promote junk food. You don't really see him eating it. You see him out and about, dancing around. They're overreacting. They want someone else to be responsible for raising their kids instead of them," said Rob Berry, 37 of Bushwick.

Garry Gilles, 30, of Sunset Park, agreed the real problem lies with parents.

"I think it's up to the parents, not him. How about you take your kid outside instead of having them sit in front of the Xbox?" 

Child’s play

These age-old mascots are used in the “retro branding” of junk food to adults who want their kids to enjoy what they did in their youth, experts said. Some now have Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Tony the Tiger
Sells: Frosted Flakes cereal
Introduced: 1952
Trademark: Machismo and emphasizing the “r” in “great”
Did you know? Fathered a son, Tony Jr.

Cap’n Crunch
Sells: Cap’n Crunch cereal
Introduced: 1963
Trademark: Two-cornered blue hat
Did you know? Full name is Horatio Magellan Crunch

Kool-Aid Man
Sells: Kool-Aid drink mix
Introduced: 1954 as Smiling Face Pitcher
Trademark: Busting through brick walls
Did you know? Had a 1983 video game based on him

Pillsbury Doughboy
Sells: Pillsbury baking products
Introduced: 1965
Trademark: Getting poked in the stomach — and liking it
Did you know? Name’s actually Poppin’ Fresh. He and Cap’n both created by ad legend Leo Burnett.

Mr. Peanut
Sells: Planters nuts and snacks
Introduced: 1916
Trademark: Steampunk top hat and monocle
Did you know? Voiced by Robert Downey Jr.

Chester Cheetah
Sells: Cheetos cheese snacks
Introduced: 1986
Trademark: Shades
Did you know? Predecessor was Cheetos Mouse

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