NEW YORK — Though Ronald McDonald has faded to the background in McDonald’s own advertising, Taco Bell’s appropriation of the name is a testament to the spokesclown’s lingering cultural power.
Since his debut in 1963, the smiling clown has helped give McDonald’s a huge advantage among kids. The clown turns up in countless aspects of pop culture. In the FX TV show ‘‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,’’ the character known as Mac is mocked by his friends after they discover his full name is Ronald McDonald at a high school reunion. Last year, The Wall Street Journal even gave the clown one of its familiar black-and-white portraits to accompany a story.
Here are a few facts about Ronald McDonald:
■ Ronald McDonald was first played by Willard Scott in an ad in the Washington, D.C., market. The character magically pulled hamburgers out of his belt, while wearing a nose made out of a McDonald’s cup. His hat was a tray holding a Styrofoam burger, a bag of fries, and a milkshake.
■ Before Ronald McDonald became the national mascot for McDonald’s, the company’s ad agency considered changing him into a cowboy given the popularity of TV Westerns. Others said he should be made into a spaceman as a nod to the budding space program.
■ For the first national ads, Scott was dropped because the agency thought he was too heavy to play the part of an ‘‘extremely active’’ Ronald, according to the book ‘‘McDonald’s: Behind the Arches.’’
■ One of the most popular first national ads first featuring Ronald McDonald showed him landing at a restaurant on a flying saucer shaped like a hamburger.
■ In Japan, Ronald McDonald is known as Donald McDonald. A local businessman who helped open the first McDonald’s in the country decided that it would be easier to pronounce for the Japanese, according to ‘‘McDonald’s: Behind the Arches.’’
■ McDonald’s doesn’t like to acknowledge that Ronald McDonald isn’t real. The company, based in Oak Brook, Ill., wouldn’t answer when asked repeatedly by the Associated Press in 2011 how many actors it uses to portray the clown. ‘‘There’s only one Ronald,’’ an executive said.
■ McDonald’s executives bristle at criticism of their mascot. At an annual meeting in 2011, a shareholder expressed disappointment that Ronald wasn’t present as the company faced criticism over use of the clown in marketing to children. Then-CEO Jim Skinner responded: ‘‘Ronald hasn’t been here because he’s out in the field busy doing work and fighting through the protesters.’’