I like fast food and pop culture history. For good or for ill, both are part of the fabric of life in the USA.
Great McDonald’s Commercials Throughout History
McDonald’s is an American icon. It’s a good bet everyone has heard of it, and another good bet that most have been to McDonald’s at least once. Over the years, in an attempt to get parents to make their way to McDonald’s, to get kids to bug their parents to take them to McDonald’s, to sell hamburgers, cheeseburgers, Big Macs and hot apple pies to nearly everyone, the fast food giant has put out some of the most memorable commercials of any big name franchise. Most everyone has probably seen some number of these commercials, too.
I don’t remember the exact year it happened, but I remember very well being a young, grade-school-aged kid and seeing the first McDonald’s arrive in Fairbanks, Alaska. My father was stationed at Eielson Air Force base from 1968 to 1974, and during that tour we would, on occasion, venture over to Fairbanks to shop in the “big city.” When they built the McDonald’s there, I’m pretty sure it put the neighboring burger joint out of business. I vaguely recall there being a Burger King or something similar there first, and when McDonald’s came to town, that other burger place went away soon thereafter.
The arrival of McDonald’s to the town just 23 miles away brought with it also the classic McDonald’s commercials (on all three TV channels!) and jingles that would ultimately stay with me for a lifetime.
McDonald’s started running national ad campaigns in 1967. That very first ad was meant to let all of us know that McDonald’s was “our kind of place.” The snappy little jingle was short, memorable and very soon ubiquitous. Indeed, grade-school kids (and, let’s face it, adults, too) everywhere started singing parodies of the tune with their own modified lyrics almost immediately after the ad first aired. This embedded it in the public consciousness even more solidly. This great article details many of the variations on that theme. The only one I remember from my personal experience is just this one partial verse:
“McDonald’s is your kind of place
They serve you rattlesnakes…”
As I recall too, though, from my days on the playground, there were also some verses out there that were something other than G-rated.
Here’s that very first national ad run by McDonald’s back in 1967:
1967: First McDonald's Nationwide TV Commercial
I know for my part, I truly believed McDonald’s was my kind of place. I was six years old and I wanted to visit the golden arches every time we drove past them. We did not, of course, and this reality made a young mind and heart ache even more for a stop into Ronald’s house.
What also made a kid like me want to go to McDonald’s were wild and whacky commercials like the one where Ronald McDonald ultimately gets airborne in his flying hamburger machine out in front of a vintage McDonald’s store. As Ronald extols the many virtues of going to McDonald’s, the melody to that very first nation-wide commercial plays circus-style on an organ in the background. At the end of the schtick, the first-generation face of McDonald’s is finally able to hop aboard his escaping flying hamburger. As he says his good-byes, the burger makes flying saucer sounds, the iconic tune continues to play, and kids clamor, holler and wave farewell.
Who wouldn’t want to hang out at a spot like that?
The Flying Hamburger, circa 1968
I find it interesting, particularly now with the intervention of more than 50 years, to watch commercials like this and think about how different things are today. For example:
Note that Ronald makes a big deal out of how fast he received his food. “No waiting,” he says. In the mid- to late-1960s that was a novel concept. If you went out to dinner back then, it was a sit-down-and-order-from-the-menu-affair, complete with waiting half an hour for dinner to come to the table. Up to that point, getting food within minutes of ordering it was still a relatively new thing for the most part.
Ronald also tries to sell the kids on how a burger and shake might help them build big muscles fast, just like his. He flexes his biceps and they pop up instantly under those cartoonishly baggy clown clothes.
Important, too, is the idea that one doesn’t have to “dress up” to eat at McDonald’s, presumably the way you would if you went to a “normal” sit-down restaurant. Ronald really sells this point in the commercial.
And finally, after he lists all these wonderful advantages of McDonald’s, Ronald tells the kids, “Remember, if you wanna be strong like me, ask your mom and dad to take you to your kind of place with your kind of food. McDonald’s!”
As the years rolled along, McDonald’s developed an entire cast of characters to sell their brand, including Hamburglar, Officer Big Mac, Mayor McCheese, Grimace and others. Working the hard sell to kids was big business for the burger behemoth. This early video of Hamburglar in action is just one example of the many, many commercials featuring this group of characters.
McDonaldland’s characters evolved to softer, perhaps less sinister characters over time, so that in the 80s The Evil Grimace became simply the big goofy Grimace, and Hamburglar changed from a skeletal, near-zombie-looking creation to an innocent, round-faced, youngish character wearing a simple Lone Ranger-type mask.
1970s America and the Mid- to Lower-Middle Class
I think the main reason we didn’t eat at McDonald’s more often back in the day (I mean, apart from the fact that it was 23 miles away when I was a grade school kid in Alaska) was because my family did not have a ton of disposable income on hand. My father was enlisted in the US Air Force and my mother worked at the bowling alley on the base, so we lived comfortably and ate three meals a day, but we were not going out for dinner routinely the way Americans do today. If we ate out at all, it was some kind of very, very special occasion. I can remember, for example, going to McDonald’s once after we went and watched one of our neighbor friends play baseball in Fairbanks.
My family was not alone in this social stratum, of course, and the folks at McDonald’s knew this very well. That general idea is, in fact, what gave birth to the most iconic, memorable and longest-running ad series the company undertook.
I don’t know about you, but when I think of McDonald’s, I almost always immediately think of deserving a break. And back in the early 70s, that’s exactly what McDonald’s wanted everyone to think when they thought about McDonald’s “stores,” as they used to call them.
Keith Reinhard, in an article about how the “You Deserve a Break Today” ad campaign almost never came to pass, said he and his cohorts knew that “moms needed an escape from meal planning, dads needed relief from the high price of eating out, kids needed a respite from broccoli and table manners, and on and on.” From this realization came the very memorable—and durable—ad idea: “You deserve a break today.”
You Deserve a Break Today
This ad from 1971 (which included John Amos of “Good Times” fame as one of the singing McDonald’s employees) has energy, diversity (such as it was for the 70s), and a strong message: cleanliness, price, convenience are all important to you, and we take care of all of them for you.
This was a simple but oh-so-effective message, and the commercial also had a tune that was so catchy, so iconic that everyone eventually knew it and could sing along to it. It was an absolute masterpiece of advertising.
Additionally, once that main melody caught on in ubiquitous fashion, McDonald’s expanded the theme to a line of commercials that included “feels.” This father-son football commercial is a fantastic example of one of those commercials about everyday family moments that happen to all of us:
You Deserve A Break Today: Family Football
Note that the music and lyrics were jazzed up a little to fit the storyline, and the well-known chorus was loud, proud and strong at the end. Inspirational and motivational, this commercial was certainly not the only one of its kind. Here’s another short one from 1972 of much the same ilk:
1972: You Deserve a Break Today
These ads, all from the early 1970s, demonstrate significant thought and care taken by the company and its advertising agency to create something for the McDonald’s brand to stand for, something for potential customers to hold onto: you can get a break here; a break in price, a break from having to prepare dinner, and a break from having to get ‘dressed up.’ And on top of all that, McDonald’s is a place where some of life’s most treasured moments can be shared.
Value is Important, Too
McDonald’s always worked the value angle very hard with commercials like this one, where a dad figures out he can feed a family of four for less than $4:
And this one, too:
Change from Your Dollar Bill!
Nobody ever got rich by letting the butler keep the change, I guess.
The idea of getting two hamburgers, fries and an ice cold Coke for less than a dollar is mind boggling today. And perhaps it wasn’t as mind-boggling back in the late 60s, but it was still a great deal and the perfect message to sell burgers and fries: the almighty buck can buy a lot of McDonald’s, and we and we want you to know it!
The 80s Were a Blur
There were lots and lots of great McDonald’s commercials in the 1980s, and McDonaldland was really in its heyday. Only two commercials made the cut for this review, though.
The first one, which is about little sister, holds a special place for me because I have a little sister of my own:
The second one, also featuring high school-aged kids, takes a trip down memory lane with a rehash of the old classic tune from nearly a decade prior. Let’s face it, even in the 80s we still needed a break.
You Still Deserve a Break
The Most Famous Commercial?
I’m no marketing expert, so I’m not well positioned to call it the most famous, but I can say this with great confidence: One of the most famous McDonald’s commercial themes of all time was the Big Mac series of commercials where the ingredients to the burger were subject and star. If you’re like me, there was probably a day when you could say it just as fast as the TV announcer: two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun.