As much as I try to avoid advertising I’ve spent entirely too much time thinking about McDonald’s lately and why Grimace’s birthday is being celebrated. Of all the corporate mascots out there Grimace seems like one of the weirdest and it led me down a rabbit hole of advertising history. Even as a kid the whole idea of McDonaldland didn’t make sense, mainly because McDonald’s is a restaurant, although what McDonald’s serves resembles the food you’d get at a real restaurant the same way the automated backing track on an ’80’s synthesizer resembles a Chopin nocturne played by Vladimir Horowitz.
The point is McDonald’s never was a theme park. Sure, they’ve got their PlayPlace playgrounds, but those are a convenience that give kids a chance to exercise a bit and forever associate McDonald’s with big plastic slides that smell like urine and vomit. They don’t make McDonald’s a destination for the same reason people don’t go to King’s Island just for the free drink refills.
I do remember some of my friends having birthdays at McDonald’s but it was kind of sad and confusing. We ate our cheeseburgers and then…what? It was back to his house because you can’t stick candles in a milkshake. I also remember Ronald McDonald making “live” appearances at various McDonald’s franchises. It seems like they’ve de-emphasized him, though, because of the whole clowns-are-creepy issue. Admittedly there have been Grimace horror parodies, as well as the “Special Tribute To Grimace”, for as long as there has been an internet, and Grimace was probably nightmare-fuel even before that–it just wasn’t as widely shared.
In fact it’s well-documented that the original four-armed Grimace terrified children.
As far as the other McDonaldland characters no one really remembers Mayor McCheese or Birdie, and the Hamburglar is controversial. There’s also Captain Crook whom I wouldn’t even know about if we hadn’t gotten a 1977 glass from McDonald’s with his picture on it, and I’m somewhat dismayed to know that if we still had that glass it would be worth about $8, but that’s another story. For a really deep cut there are the Fry Kids, which bear a passing resemblance to but lack the charisma of the Sesame Street Yip-Yip Martians.
So in spite of, or because of, his dark origins Grimace is really the only McDonaldland character with broad enough appeal to be worth celebrating, although it’s surprising they’ve even bothered given that the media landscape is so saturated with characters vying for our attention it’s hard to imagine a purple blob who originally had four arms and was a villain but who then morphed into a more benign figure whose sole purpose is still to sell hamburgers drawing that much interest.
And yet Grimace’s birthday, and the accompanying shake, has gotten a lot of attention, although I think a friend of mine put it best when he told me, “The biggest disappointment is they don’t taste like grape. They’re just purple vanilla. I won’t be sad when they’re gone and I don’t know what the big deal is even after having about a dozen so far.”