McDonald’s has a long and fascinating history in PR, marketing, and advertising. From eye-catching and fun mascots like Speedee and Ronald McDonald, to purposely created product scarcity, to catchy phrases like "I'm Lovin' It," the pioneers behind the Golden Arches have proven to be masterminds of the marketing craft over and over again. Of all their advertising undertakings, the Mac Tonight commercials represent one of the most successful McDonald's ad campaigns to date. At least 27 spots starring the Mac Tonight "Moon Man" aired during the peak of its four- to five-year campaign.
Portrayed by a young Doug Jones wearing a Mac Tonight mask, Mac was the epitome of cool, as far as crescent moon-headed coolness goes. Depicted playing a piano and singing jazz-themed jingles, the McDonald’s Moon Man became an instant hit the world over. He appears innocent enough, but behind the catchy tune and smiling visage lies a history entangled in homicide-themed pop songs, lawsuits, the so-called "Burger Wars," and racially offensive internet memes. Read on to learn how the seemingly innocuous Mac Tonight went from iconic fast-food mascot in the late '80s, to alt right-manipulated imagery in the 2000s, to a retired animatronic in one of the world's largest McDonald’s locations.
‘Mac Tonight’ Was The First Acting Role Of Doug Jones, Who Would Go On To Play Monsters In ‘Hocus Pocus’ And ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’
All successful actors initially earn their chops in minor roles or filming TV commercials. Doug Jones was no different. He landed his screen debut when he got the part playing Mac Tonight in 1987, and ended up starring in 27 of the popular noir-cool ads.
It would be a sign of things to come. Although Jones had initially set his sights on becoming a sitcom star, his 6-foot-3, wire-thin frame and contortionist-like abilities would earn him a prolific career as a costume actor. Jones is one of the most successful modern actors - with one of the least familiar faces. Since starring as Mac Tonight, he's earned more than 150 acting credits spanning more than three decades. His many fantastical portrayals include Billy Butcherson in the cult classic Hocus Pocus; a creepy, thin clown in Batman Returns; a contortionist on The Weird Al Show; Abe Sapien in the Hellboy series; Amphibian Man in The Shape of Water; and a pair of iconic modern creatures in Pan's Labyrinth.
Years later, the actor has fond memories of his McDonald's role. On March 9, 2017, the actor celebrated the 30th anniversary of his acting career with a throwback Twitter post honoring his role as the unforgettable character.
The Name Was Based On ‘Mack The Knife,’ A Song Popularized By Bobby Darin About A Killer
Lyrics from the song "Mack the Knife":
Now on the sidewalk
Lies a body just oozin' life
And someone's sneakin' around the corner
Could that someone be Mack the Knife?
In an effort to cultivate nostalgia as well as a cool, more adult theme, McDonald's took inspiration from both real and fictional people for its Mac Tonight concept. Many adults of the '80s grew up on big-band crooners like Bobby Darin, whose rendition of "Mack the Knife" presented an incredibly catchy jingle opportunity for a company with "Mac" in its name.
Despite the obvious phonological similarities between "Mack the Knife" and "Mac Tonight," the choice in song was a rather strange one. The original version of it was called "Moritat," which is German for "Murder Ballad," from an opera about a beggar-thief. It became an unlikely pop hit when Louis Armstrong heard Marc Blitzstein’s English adaptation, resonating with its "stabby" character thanks to his sketchy New Orleans upbringing. After Armstrong's version hit No. 20 on the charts in 1956, it became a jazz staple. Darin's version proved to be even more popular when it catapulted to No. 1 in 1959.
Despite the song's unsettling origins, McDonald's bet the popularity of Darin's tune and the catchy Mac Tonight lyrics would override any associations with a "Murder Ballad." The fast-food giant had its jingle - now all it needed was the right character to deliver it.
McDonald's Ads Were Extremely Kid-Focused, And The Company Needed Something To Boost Dinnertime Business
Jones may have breathed life into the McDonald's "Moon Man," as he would become known, but it was the Los Angeles ad agency Davis, Johnson, Mogul & Colombatto Inc. that conceived of the Mac Tonight commercials. The campaign took nearly a year to create and execute.
In 1987, the firm launched four local TV spots on a budget of $500,000. The success of Mac Tonight propelled the firm further into success, eventually acquiring such clients as US Borax, the Chief Auto Parts division of Southland Corp., and Knott's Berry Farm.
As for McDonald's, the fast food giant has a history of successful marketing tactics - the invention of McDonaldland being one particularly strong example. Launched in 1971 via the ad agency Needham, Harper & Steers, McDonaldland allowed the restaurant chain to expand beyond commercials and into kids' everyday lives in the form of toys and PlayPlaces. This campaign was wildly successful with children, but left older audiences feeling out of touch with McDonald's. The company also found its dinnertime numbers sagging.
As a result, McDonald's decided to undertake a new marketing campaign targeting adults and the dinner crowd.
- Photo: Max Headroom / ABC
The Character Was Inspired By The Fictional TV Personality Max Headroom
A jazz-belting Moon Man may seem like a random character for McDonald’s to develop, but his pallor complexion, dark shades, and black suit had precedent. In fact, it was inspired by Max Headroom. Initially appearing on British airwaves in the spring of 1985 and making his way across the pond to US television later that year, Max was popular with teens and adults during the mid-to-late '80s.
Since that time, he's been portrayed and imitated in everything from major motion pictures like Back to the Future Part II, to rap videos such as Eminem's "Rap God," to one of the most fascinating TV hijackings in history. In an effort to spread some of that cult coolness onto its client, the ad firm Davis, Johnson, Mogul & Colombatto incorporated some of Max's primary characteristics into Mac Tonight's final appearance.
Max Headroom also aired during after-hours programming, a further tie-in to the late-night/dinner crowd McDonald's was attempting to attract.