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Great McDonald’s Commercials Throughout History

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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-mcdonalds-commercials-throughout-history

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!”

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McDonaldland

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.

The Hamburglar

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.

1980s Hamburglar

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.

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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!

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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:

Little Sister

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.

Two All-Beef Patties...

This commercial even included how much you deserve a break today, as well as that little extra “far out” at the end, which was a favorite pop lexicon phrase in the mid-1970s. Sing it again, Sam: two-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun!

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My All-Time Favorite McDonald’s Commercials

After nearly 60 years, and hundreds and hundreds of different McDonald’s commercials, it is probably safe to also say that many folks have a favorite or two in the group. I personally have three favorites on my list. Two of them are related to each other, play off of each other, though they were created many years apart. The third is one of the most bizarre commercials McDonald’s ever did, but it comes with a catchy tune I used to sing a lot when my son was growing up. He still loves to hear me sing it today (sarcasm).

#3: Filet-O-Fish

“Gimme back that Filet-o-Fish, gimme that fish!” I just love it! Haha! And hey, wouldn't it be nice to still be able to buy two of them for $3.33. Great piece of nostalgia right there.

Apologies in advance if I’ve put that song in your head for the rest of the day…

In position one and two, my favorite McD’s commercials of all time, are ads that include Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, LeBron James and Dwight Howard. Since there couldn’t have been a sequel without the original, I’d definitely have to say the original is my all-time fave. Still, in order to get the full effect, you have to watch them in order of production, not order of preference.

So, without further ado: coming it at number one on my own personal list of favorite McDonald’s commercials is 1993’s “The Showdown” with Michael Jordan and Larry Bird.

#1: The Showdown

“Through the window, off the wall…nothin’ but net.” Swish! Awesome! And so hilarious.

That vintage commercial is one I could easily watch all day long because of how much I love both Michael Jordan and Larry Bird, and how much I loved watching them compete against each other back in their prime. Also, they are two classy guys, in my humble opinion, and McDonald’s really scored a coup when they hired the two of them to represent.

For our modern times, a new twist on the showdown-style commercial was released by McDonald’s. It featured LeBron James and Dwight Howard in a similar competition scenario. Perhaps the biggest difference: instead of “no dunking,” as requested by Larry Bird in the original 90s commercial, the two iconic NBA stars here agree instead to avoid jump shots.

#2: LeBron and Dwight: Showdown, the Sequel

“Who’s that?”

“I have no idea…he’s taking our lunch, though.”

Haha! It’s somewhat plausible that they’d not know Larry Bird, which is why he was in the role instead of Michael Jordan, obviously. Larry isn’t selling billions of dollars worth of shoes with his name and likeness on them the way his counterpart is…

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A Great History

No question about it: McDonald’s is an American icon. The company made its name first and foremost by providing quality food and service at a reasonable price in clean, well-kempt restaurants. They emphasized as much in their early advertising days, too. Over the years, though, once McDonald’s became a household name, they began to broaden their advertising approach. They appealed to young kids (“Mom, Dad, take me to McDonald’s!”); they appealed to heart strings, to family commitments; they provided oodles of entertainment and originality in their commercial advertising approach.

At the end of the day, it’s no secret why McDonald’s makes commercials: they want to sell product. Still, though, what they’ve accomplished collaterally is something bigger than that for a baby boomer like me: McDonald’s commercials chronicle the times, elicit life memories and moments, they remind of days gone by and good times with family and friends.

I, for one, hope they continue to make memorable commercials like these for many, many years to come.

Watchmojo's Top 10 Best McDonald's Commercials

© 2020 greg cain

Comments

greg cain (author) from Moscow, Idaho, USA on July 27, 2020:

Thanks, Abby. You watching each of these commercials is an extraordinary feat, I must say. It makes for a long read of the article, does it not? Thanks for taking the trip down memory lane with me! Hope you have a fantastic week.

Abby Slutsky from America on July 20, 2020:

I really enjoyed this article. It was a nice walk down memory lane. Thank you for sharing. I watched every commerical you included.

greg cain (author) from Moscow, Idaho, USA on July 15, 2020:

Danke, Chris. It was a lot do fun and also brought back memories for me, as well. Have a good week.

Chris Mills from Traverse City, MI on July 15, 2020:

That brought back a lot of memories. Pickles, lettuce, onions....Anyway, thanks for putting this together. Good job.

greg cain (author) from Moscow, Idaho, USA on July 08, 2020:

Thanks, Denise. Indeed it was a great to be able to go there as a kid. Once I reached the point I could go whenever I wanted, the mystique was long gone...

Thanks for stopping by, and have a great week.

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on July 08, 2020:

I grew up with these too. Quite a nostalgic trip down memory lane. Like you, we didn't go very often. It was a treat to visit McDonalds.

Blessings,

Denise

greg cain (author) from Moscow, Idaho, USA on July 07, 2020:

Thanks, Dora. And I agree. They do what they do to sell burgers and fries, but along the way they have appealed to nearly everyone with sentimental ads, humorous ads, family adventure and advantage ads. Thank you for stopping by and also for your always-thoughtful comments.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on July 07, 2020:

Such a treat hearing these old McDonald's commercials. The songs are all fun! This company has put great effort into appealing to the family. Thanks for sharing.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on July 07, 2020:

That settles it then. I'll have to let my brother know. I don't even know if he remembers he thought his recipe came first. He used to make something similar with veal cutlets.

Now, I'm dying to know what the special sauce is!

greg cain (author) from Moscow, Idaho, USA on July 07, 2020:

Fran - thank you for giving it a look-see. It was a lot of fun to put together, and a great trip down memory lane for me, as well. I can say that my wife and son are glad I'm done with it, though. I kept singing and subconsciously humming the filet-o-fish song throughout the day and I think it was driving them a little batty.

greg cain (author) from Moscow, Idaho, USA on July 07, 2020:

Sha - we are kindred spirits in so many different ways, and here you've just hit on another one: no question in my mind, hands-down, unquestionably, unequivocally, there are no fries better anywhere anyhow. There is one caveat to that, though; they have to be hot. Once they have reached a close approximation to room temperature they are no longer quite so good. In that way, I suppose, they are not alone.

According to my friend Google, the Big Mac debuted in 1967, went national in 1968. The sauce recipe changed once along the way, and then changed back to the original formula. Sounds a little bit like the Coca Cola recipe fiasco some number of years ago.

I have used Thousand Island myself to create a similar tasting burger, but as one who used to work there a million years ago, I can also spout the company line: the recipe is a secret, and it's not 1000 island dressing. Haha!

Thanks for dropping by, Sha, and thanks again for your thoughtful comment.

greg cain (author) from Moscow, Idaho, USA on July 07, 2020:

Bill - yes, I have done something similar on occasion myself: bought a whole bag of cheeseburgers to feed a hungry group because I had no desire to try to sort through umpteen different orders, etc. It still satisfied and wasn't complicated. Nothing wrong with that!

I also worked at McDonald's when I was in high school, so I have some memories from those great days, too. I'm thinking about writing on that topic one day soon.

greg cain (author) from Moscow, Idaho, USA on July 07, 2020:

John - thanks, mate. That thought didn't occur to me, but should have. I did not visit McDonald's when I vacationed in Oz back in 2009, though, so perhaps that's why I didn't think of it. I just did a quick search and found this one https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j03t-xkNUAc and I love it! Haha! They know how to tug at the heart strings all over the globe.

Thanks for your great comment and thanks for dropping by and giving a look.

greg cain (author) from Moscow, Idaho, USA on July 07, 2020:

Eric - I attempted during a cross country training mission in my T-38 trainer jet to get an overnight stay at NAS Miramar once back in the late 80s when it was still a Navy base. Alas, there were no rooms at the lodging inn on a Friday night. I had to land at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro instead. That was, obviously, not quite the same kind of experience. And yes, the Padres franchise would have folded without Ray, for sure.

He was one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people of the 20th century, landing a spot on the list of Builders & Titans alongside other big names like Walt Disney, Henry Ford, and Bill Gates, to name just a few. Those things I knew.

I did not know much about the rest of it, though, so I thank you for bringing it up, along with your special connection and gratitude. It warms my heart when those who have so much are willing to give a little of it and do things for the greater common good. We could use more of that every single day these days.

We don't eat a ton of fast food these days in my house, either, but I'd be lying if I said we don't eat it at all. It is a saving grace some days when yard work and house projects have eaten the entire day and there is no will or energy left to cook in a too-hot kitchen.

Have a good week, Mr. Eric.

greg cain (author) from Moscow, Idaho, USA on July 07, 2020:

Ruby - yes! They do indeed. I have on occasion hopped in the truck late night before bed to fill hot fudge sundae cravings for family members and me. That might be on the agenda for tonight, even. Thanks for the reminder! And thanks also for checking out the article. I did have a grand time putting it all together. As you rightfully noted, it took quite some time to gather all the right pieces parts.

fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on July 05, 2020:

What a wonderful article! Love the trip down memory lane! Thanks for your detailed article!

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on July 05, 2020:

Box, you have succeeded in making me crave a Big Mac! To this day, I still think Micky D's fries are better than any other fast food joint.

This was a fun step back into time. However, I don't ever remember my parents taking us to McDonald's, although I know the commercials well.

My brother would make his version of a Big Mac every day when he got home from school. BTW, the special sauce is Thousand Island dressing, at least that's what he put on his. My brother used to say that Mickey D's stole his recipe. I'm talking sometime in the early '70s. Do you know when the Big Mac first appeared on their menu?

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on July 05, 2020:

A fun history lesson, my friend. I remember the first one arriving in Tacoma. Seems like it was around 1970 or so. I couldn't believe you could get a burger for so little money. I went out and bought a dozen and drove around giving them to my friends. lol Great memory!

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on July 04, 2020:

What a great article, Greg. Even though I have never been a fan of McDonalds food I can appreciate the commercials and their successful marketing campaigns. In fact, I had never seen any of these commercials before. I guess Australia had a totally different advertising campaign. Well done.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on July 04, 2020:

We here in fighter Town USA owe a great deal to the McDonald brothers via Ray Kroc. We have senior and junior centers and Salvation Army buildings and hospital wings and theaters by their benevolence. Their feeding hungry contributions are so needed now. And we know without Joan and Ray we would not have our beloved Padres and many more would be homeless.

So this has a special meaning for this San Diegan who has not eaten a fast food in at least over a year. Thanks

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on July 04, 2020:

You put a lot of work in this article and it's great! There's nothing like a Mc Donald's hamburger and fries. I might add that they make a delicious hot fudge sundae that melts in your mouth.