Send Out the Clowns

As McDonald's focuses on coffee-drinking adults, Ronald becomes a side order

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Jamie Chung for TIME

Unlike his rival Jared Fogle, whose message of wellness has helped Subway overtake the Golden Arches as the largest restaurant chain in the world, Ronald McDonald doesn't look

Unlike his rival Jared Fogle, whose message of wellness has helped Subway overtake the Golden Arches as the largest restaurant chain in the world, Ronald McDonald doesn't look like the picture of health these days. When a report recently surfaced that the 48-year-old clown was being retired, Ronald haters everywhere felt vindicated. Last year, the watchdog group Corporate Accountability International called for Ronald's banishment, and down-with-the-clown sentiment outside the U.S. is so extreme that one Finnish group beheaded the hapless mascot in effigy in an especially gruesome piece of political theater.

Ronald's apparent dismissal seemed less like an attempt to placate progressives (or people who fear clowns) than a reaction to increasing pressure on the chain to stop marketing high-fat, processed food to children, whose escalating girth has become a major concern in the U.S. In 2009 a New York City councilman proposed a ban on fast-food chains within one-tenth of a mile (160 m) of any school; San Francisco has outlawed the Happy Meal. And while McDonald's subsequently issued a clarification that Ronald might still be called on now and then to speak for the brand, the company confirmed that he had become less important to its overall marketing plan. Asked when Ronald was last featured in a commercial, Danya Proud, director of U.S. communications for McDonald's, told TIME, "I don't even know. I'd have to look into it ... We use him differently today than we have in the past, but he continues to have a role that's right for him in our business."

And so the redheaded companion of the Hamburglar and Mayor McCheese joins other legacy mascots who have fallen into symbolic limbo. These characters never get fired outright, just put in storage and occasionally dusted off for nostalgia-filled appearances. But if you were to gain access to McDonald's marketing department, you might find that it was not his connection to kids that put Ronald on the firing line; it was his disconnection from McDonald's increasingly lucrative base of adult consumers, the ones who have made the chain's McCafé line — a seemingly late entry into the specialty-coffee market — wildly successful. McDonald's saw in Starbucks a mighty force that might be absorbed, Borg-like, into the McDonald's galaxy, but Ronald is too corny and down-market to shill lattes (and wraps and smoothies). While kids are still important, McDonald's has made it clear that it wants the rest of the family too, and the adult customer doesn't have a lot of use for clowns or trippy live-action cartoons with purple shake monsters.

It's a move McDonald's has perfected time and again. It has followed every lead that's come along in the quick-service business, from drive-throughs to movie tie-ins, and has done it all far more successfully than the original innovators. Now the company is well on its way to beating Starbucks at its own game, with McCafés driving revenue growth in six of the past seven quarters to a record high of $24 billion in sales last year. With that kind of money at stake, there's no room for clowning around.

like the picture of health these days. When a report recently surfaced that the 48-year-old clown was being retired, Ronald haters everywhere felt vindicated. Last year, the watchdog group Corporate Accountability International called for Ronald's banishment, and down-with-the-clown sentiment outside the U.S. is so extreme that one Finnish group beheaded the hapless mascot in effigy in an especially gruesome piece of political theater.

Ronald's apparent dismissal seemed less like an attempt to placate progressives (or people who fear clowns) than a reaction to increasing pressure on the chain to stop marketing high-fat, processed food to children, whose escalating girth has become a major concern in the U.S. In 2009 a New York City councilman proposed a ban on fast-food chains within one-tenth of a mile (160 m) of any school; San Francisco has outlawed the Happy Meal. And while McDonald's subsequently issued a clarification that Ronald might still be called on now and then to speak for the brand, the company confirmed that he had become less important to its overall marketing plan. Asked when Ronald was last featured in a commercial, Danya Proud, director of U.S. communications for McDonald's, told TIME, "I don't even know. I'd have to look into it ... We use him differently today than we have in the past, but he continues to have a role that's right for him in our business."

And so the redheaded companion of the Hamburglar and Mayor McCheese joins other legacy mascots who have fallen into symbolic limbo. These characters never get fired outright, just put in storage and occasionally dusted off for nostalgia-filled appearances. But if you were to gain access to McDonald's marketing department, you might find that it was not his connection to kids that put Ronald on the firing line; it was his disconnection from McDonald's increasingly lucrative base of adult consumers, the ones who have made the chain's McCafé line--a seemingly late entry into the specialty-coffee market--wildly successful. McDonald's saw in Starbucks a mighty force that might be absorbed, Borg-like, into the McDonald's galaxy, but Ronald is too corny and down-market to shill lattes (and wraps and smoothies). While kids are still important, McDonald's has made it clear that it wants the rest of the family too, and the adult customer doesn't have a lot of use for clowns or trippy live-action cartoons with purple shake monsters.

It's a move McDonald's has perfected time and again. It has followed every lead that's come along in the quick-service business, from drive-throughs to movie tie-ins, and has done it all far more successfully than the original innovators. Now the company is well on its way to beating Starbucks at its own game, with McCafés driving revenue growth in six of the past seven quarters to a record high of $24 billion in sales last year. With that kind of money at stake, there's no room for clowning around.