McDonald's relishes a beefed-up Ronald
By RICHARD BLOOM
Toronto Globe and Mail

(Comment: keep reading - the "surprise" is at the end)

Sure he looks friendly, with his big smile, colorful jumpsuit and playful repartee. But get ready for some McAttitude.

Ronald McDonald -- the iconic character that is not only a corporate mascot but also a global symbol of everything good and bad about America -- is undergoing a makeover that will change his look, sense of humor and role at the fast-food chain.

"We're letting Ronald escape from the playpen," said Larry Light, McDonald's global chief marketing officer.

"He's been confined to kids. We're repositioning Ronald McDonald. So, Ronnie is going through a retraining program -- taking courses in humor that kids can look up to rather than adults look down at."

McDonald's has been quietly tweaking the character's image in recent years as it struggled to revitalize its marketing, menu items and sales.

Corporative executives are preparing for a coming out, of sorts, of the revamped Ronald in the near future.

The clown will frequently drop the familiar red, yellow and white jumpsuit and size 29EEE shoes and don different outfits, such as a basketball jersey, a beach outfit and a tuxedo. In all, there are seven new costumes, Light said.

Plans also include depicting Ronald at sporting events on the tray liners, creating a television show to be aired in U.S. schools with Ronald as a "motivator" to get kids to eat right and to be more active. Similar computer software is in the works.

Then there's Ronald's sense of humor. Light says it will resemble the comedy used in blockbuster movies Shrek and Finding Nemo, which resonates with children and adults. He would not elaborate. However, characters in those movies are known for double-entendres and pop-culture puns.

Meanwhile, McDonald's brass has been testing some of the image changes in Canada during the past year: Ronald recently snowboarded at an event in Whistler, British Columbia , skydived in Regina , and walked down the red carpet at the Much Music Video Awards in Toronto .

Ronald was created in 1963 in Washington , D.C. , played by former NBC weatherman Willard Scott. While his general appearance looks similar today, the original Ronald featured a paper-cup nose and a box of fast food on his head.

According to the 2001 book Fast Food Nation, 96 percent of U.S. schoolchildren can identify Ronald McDonald . Only Santa Claus was more commonly recognized. "The impact of McDonald's on the way we live today is hard to overstate. The Golden Arches are now more widely recognized than the Christian cross ," author Eric Schlosser writes.

In the popular 2004 documentary Super Size Me, which sought to prove the unhealthiness of McDonald's food, children couldn't identify pictures of Jesus , George Washington or George W. Bush, but easily recognized Ronald McDonald .

(Surprised? We're not!)