I catapulted out of my mother’s birth canal with a television problem, a flair for the dramatic, and a passion for rampant consumerism. This led to an obsession with ’90s TV ads. As a child, I cultivated a nasty habit of bursting into my mom’s bedroom as she napped to inform her of an incredible deal on Furbies. She’d tell me to get out, and I’d insist that she didn’t understand: The Furbies were EACH SOLD SEPARATELY, a disclaimer I mistook for a major selling point.
To this day, I’m a sucker for advertising gimmicks. So you can imagine my shock when my boyfriend casually mentioned a stately fast food spokesman I had never heard of. Someone who reigned supreme in McDonald’s advertising for years. Someone who, like many public servants, had a head shaped like a giant burger. Someone named Mayor McCheese.
“You seriously don’t remember Mayor McCheese?” he asked, incredulous. And I didn’t. Of course, I’m familiar with Ronald McDonald, the eternally unsettling clown master of the McDonald’s universe. I’ve even heard tell of Speedee, the McDonald’s mascot who preceded both Ronald and the company’s signature golden arches. And naturally, I’ve spent many waking hours trying to figure out an appropriate taxonomic phylum for Grimace, that otherworldly purple gumdrop.
But I had never known that, in the aggregate, these characters comprised McDonaldland, Mayor McCheese’s domain and the setting of McDonald’s major marketing efforts well into the 1990s. Hungry for beef and hungrier for knowledge, I went down this pleasantly greasy rabbit hole and discovered that McDonaldland was the epicenter of a years-long David-and-Goliath legal battle. My primary source? A 1977 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision document that summarized a hefty dispute between Sid & Marty Krofft Television Productions, Inc. and the McDonald’s Corporation.
It all started in 1970, when ad agency Needham, Harper & Steers had the opportunity to pitch a campaign to McDonald’s. Before the pitch, agency representatives approached Sid and Marty Krofft, the masterminds behind the live-action puppet-centric kids’ show H.R. Pufnstuf, to discuss a collaboration. Needham initially asked the Kroffts if the agency could base the McDonald’s campaign directly on the iconic Pufnstuf characters—namely the titular character, a friendly dragon who served as mayor of the magical Living Island. According to the Court of Appeals decision document, Needham exchanged six or seven phone calls with the Kroffts and agreed to pay them for any artistic contributions. But before the Kroffts could begin work on the campaign, the executives informed the Kroffts that the campaign had been canceled.
That turned out to be a total whopper. In reality, Needham had already won the McDonald’s account, and the firm was moving forward on the McDonaldland project with the help of several former Krofft employees—but not the Kroffts themselves. According to the Court of Appeals document, Needham had even hired a Pufnstuf voice actor to voice several McDonaldland characters. (The name of the two-timing voice expert is not listed in the Court of Appeals decision document.)
Fast forward to 1971, when McDonald’s aired the first of its McDonaldland commercials. It starred none other than Mayor McCheese, a beefy patrician who, wouldn’t you know it, bore a striking resemblance to H.R. Pufnstuf. You can spot him at the 0:25 mark below:
In the commercial, McCheese sported a stately diplomat’s sash that looked awfully similar to Pufnstuf’s dignified cummerbund. Also like Pufnstuf, McCheese had a massive, disk-like noggin. Of course, McCheese’s head was a burger, but a side-by-side comparison of the two is pretty uncanny. The similarities are described in the Court of Appeals decision document:
“‘Pufnstuf’ wears what can only be described as a yellow and green dragon suit with a blue cummerband from which hangs a medal which says ‘mayor’. ‘McCheese’ wears a version of pink formal dress — ‘tails’ — with knicker trousers. He has a typical diplomat’s sash on which is written ‘mayor’, the ‘M’ consisting of the McDonald’s trademark of an ‘M’ made of golden arches.”
They’re also both, um, enormous puppet politicians, which seems to be the most glaring similarity. Still, the team representing McDonald’s tried its darnedest to prove that the similarities were murky at best. Behold, the funniest sentence ever written in a legal brief:
We do not believe that the ordinary reasonable person, let alone a child, viewing these works will even notice that Pufnstuf is wearing a cummerbund while Mayor McCheese is wearing a diplomat’s sash.
The good mayor wasn’t the only example of blatant copyright infringement, although he is the only character mentioned by name in the Court of Appeals decision document. Interestingly, Mayor McCheese already had his own doppelganger within the McDonaldland canon: Officer Big Mac, the fantasy world’s resident lawman who also had a burger for a head. (ACAB: All Cops Are Burgers.) He was voiced by lugubrious Addams Family actor Ted Cassidy, who did always seem somewhat carceral in nature.
Then, of course, there’s Grimace. Take one look at the guy and it’s clear that he’s a wannabe Krofft character. Grimace debuted alongside McCheese and Officer Big Mac in 1971, originally branded as the “Evil Grimace” who was hellbent on stealing soda pop and milkshakes. The ungodly purple creature turned over a new leaf in 1972, becoming one of the good guys and achieving McDonaldland repertory status. Grimace even had a family, including the culturally questionable, shillelagh-wielding Uncle O’Grimacey, who appeared in 1986 to mark the annual appearance of the Shamrock Shake.
Not all McDonaldland citizens were total rip-offs, though. Consider the Hamburglar, a singular criminal who debuted in 1971 as an old, haggard thief known as the Lone Jogger. He retained undeniable flasher vibes until 1985, when he became the boyish troublemaker we know and love. The Hamburglar disappeared from network television from 2002 until 2015, when he returned looking pretty goddamn sexy. (Sorry!)
Here’s where things get sticky. The Kroffts filed suit in 1971, and they were awarded $50,000 in damages by the district court in 1973. The Kroffts then appealed the case, requesting “additional monetary recovery in the form of profits or statutory ‘in lieu’ damages.” Representatives from McDonald’s and Needham also appealed, claiming that McDonaldland’s brand of “expression” was protected under the First Amendment regardless of Pufnstuf copyright claims. The appeals court rejected that claim, explaining that copyright protected the form of expression, while the First Amendment protected the right to present the ideas in some other form of expression. And since McDonald’s “form of expression” was a pretty clear rip-off? No dice, McCheese.
The appeals case was remanded for an accounting, which means it was returned to the district court for further consideration. The district court assessed all the McDonaldland commercials that had aired by then, along with accompanying promo items, tallying up the approximate number of infringements perpetrated by McDonald’s. In 1977, this complex formula scored the Kroffts a total award of $1,044,000. (They could have bought roughly 3.5 million burgers at 1970s prices with that scratch.)
Unfortunately, by the time the Kroffts received their final settlement, Pufnstuf’s short-lived heyday was over (the show only ran for one season in 1969), and the McDonaldland characters had become wildly popular via candy-colored TV ad campaigns, merchandise releases, and updates to the McDonald’s PlayPlace including Officer Big Mac’s jail cell. In other words, the damage was done.
It’s possible that McDonald’s was self-conscious about the stain that this lawsuit had left on its characters, because while Ronald, Grimace, and the Hamburglar remained major players in the company’s ads throughout the ’90s, Mayor McCheese and Officer Big Mac were both phased out in the mid-1980s. It’s unclear if anyone from the Needham team got axed after launching a scandalous campaign rife with copyright infringement (McDonald’s never responded to our requests for comment on the whole debacle), but perhaps the bigger offense was leaning even more heavily into Ronald McDonald in the decade that followed.
The TV lover in me is charmed by this bizarre, disjointed campaign. Sure, the ads are fun. But I actually think the best part is the undeniably thoughtful, if very strange, way that the McDonaldland characters are fleshed out. While every other character is a clearly distinct species—human, clown, purple gumdrop—Officer Big Mac and Mayor McCheese both have burger patties for tongues. And why do they get to be sentient and clothed, while other burgers just sing from the flower patch in which they’re firmly rooted? All of their backstories are unevenly developed, to say the least: according to McDonaldland’s meticulous Wikipedia entry, Grimace is a ham radio enthusiast, but I wasn’t able to find any proof of that hobby (though I think it’s sweet all the same). The Fry Kids, meanwhile, existed solely to gobble up the other characters’ French fries. None of it makes sense, but it all came from some advertising creative’s broken, beautiful brain.
Fortunately, in spite of its conflict-saddled debut, McDonaldland lives on through dusty figurines and fuzzy commercial compilations on YouTube. It’s escapism at its finest, a forgotten world where copyright infringement is king and the Hamburglar’s vicious plots are foiled time and time again. Join me, won’t you?