The Legacy of Mac Tonight

We live in a modern cultural landscape defined by brand identities. The widespread reach of social media platforms allow corporations to appear more relatable and form connections with consumers through an almost entirely new marketing landscape. From the quirky content of the Denny’s Tumblr account to the complete brand rejuvenation of the Sonic the Hedgehog Twitter, brands have used social media to their fullest extent to create audiences. And for what it’s worth, the strategy has been very successful. I mean, I’ve formed a parasocial relationship with the Takis Twitter account and I’ve humanized an ice cream chain more than I’d care to admit. Big businesses all over the world have used social media to re-invent their image to stay “cool” in an ever-adapting cultural landscape. But in an era before the Internet, how could a brand do something similar to this? How could a company rebuild a persona to stay topical and connect with an audience?

A company’s brand is inherently tied to their mascot. Mascots are one of the most prominent methods for building a public image for your company. By attaching a face to represent your company, you immediately link that character – and their design – to the goods and services you offer. Think about Mr. Clean. The first mental image probably isn’t of a bottle of drain cleaner – it’s of that shiny bald man on the packaging. McDonald’s is no different – everyone loves that fun little clown Ronald! But Ronny doesn’t actually appear alongside the company’s products and marketing very often anymore. McDonald’s and their ads are plentiful, but they focus on the food, not on any character. McDonalds feels like it — and their target audience — have outgrown the character. Therefore, they only use him as a figurehead for younger-facing ventures, such as the Ronald McDonald House, their charity organization designed to ameliorate the lives of children worldwide. The practice of phasing out a mascot certainly isn’t exclusive — do any of you know about the Noid — but McDonald’s is no stranger to this practice.

Let’s set the scene — the year is 1986. McDonald’s has been in operation for forty years, growing from a singular restaurant in San Bernardino, California run by the McDonald brothers to a worldwide entity that has become a symbol of global capitalism. In 1965, McDonalds introduced their mascot Ronald McDonald in order to market to children. Ronald’s intent was to create an image of McDonald’s as a family restaurant. They wanted to create a niche — a family dinner that could be made fast and cost very little. In the 50s and 60s, the TV character of Bozo the Clown had captured the American zeitgeist, so McDonald’s decided that a clown would be the best possible mascot to attract families. It worked. Ronald would become the most famous restaurant mascot of all time, spawning comics, TV shows, and video games starring the clown prince of burgers himself.

As time passed, Ronald began to show his age. Clowns were certainly a great way to get kids and families in the door, but it didn’t do very much for any other demographic. Clowns were (and still are) not, by any definition of the word, “cool.” McDonald’s wanted a way to boost dinner sales, so they came up with the coolest character they possibly could. Inspired by the song “Mack the Knife” by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht and 1950s nostalgia, McDonald’s launched Mac Tonight in 1986.

Mac was an anthropomorphic moon who sang with a smooth low voice in the style of Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby. From his suit and sunglasses to the pianos he would come to be associated with, he was as suave as a fast food mascot could possibly be. Mac Tonight initially appeared both in advertisements as well as a costumed character in some restaurants in California. The campaign worked. Mac Tonight sharply boosted sales during the dinnertime rush.. As the years progressed, Mac Tonight would spread along the West Coast before spreading nationwide. By 1987, Mac Tonight had Happy Meal toys and nationwide advertisement coverage. In September of 1987, the number of surveyed consumers that recalled the Mac Tonight ads was higher than that any company since the launch of New Coke two years prior.

But all good things eventually come to an end —- or in Mac Tonight’s case, a screeching halt. In 1989, Bobby Darin’s son Doug claimed that Mac Tonight infringed on his father’s trademark on “Mack The Knife” and sued McDonald’s. McDonald’s immediately retired the character. Since then, Mac Tonight has come back in some parts of Southeast Asia, but the character has been dead for decades in the West.

But Mac Tonight has had somewhat of a cultural post-mortem. Vaporwave musician Saint Pepsi (who was notably born years after Mac Tonight disappeared from the public eye) used Mac Tonight footage for the music video for his 2013 track “Enjoy Yourself.” Since then, Mac has become somewhat of a cult symbol for the entire genre of vaporwave. One could argue that vaporwave is a modern day equivalent of “crooning”, the genre that Mac initially embodied. From the slowed vocals to the more relaxed production and energy, these two genres both take the generalized concept of “being cool” and equate them with relaxation. Mac fits with vaporwave because of this modern transposition of “coolness.”

Unfortunately, Mac Tonight’s image has also been appropriated for a much darker use. Internet forums in the late 2000s such as YTMND, 4chan, and 8chan began using text-to-speech programs to create a vast array of videos making Mac Tonight say racist phrases. Now dubbed “Moon Man”, Mac was co-opted the same way other internet figures such as Pepe the Frog were — to ultimately become a hate symbol. Throughout the Internet, “Moon Man” reached a hateful apex, subject to text-to-speech songs celebrating police brutality and the 2016 Pulse shooting. In 2019, “Moon Man” was officially dubbed a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League. Effectively, McDonalds has absolutely no way of saving Mac’s image. He will always be associated with “Moon Man.”

Mac Tonight was the precursor to a brand Twitter personality. In a pre-Internet era, he served as a “cool” personification of a fast food restaurant, something he did both decades before and much better than Burger King telling women that they belong in the kitchen. He was “the cool McDonald’s.” And although his legacy has been eroded by Internet bottom feeders, he’s a testament to the success of a corporate rebranding.