When the British street artist Banksy did a multi-borough exhibition in New York City last year, Ronald McDonald didn’t end up looking too good. In the latest of a series of works focused on the general grossness of fast food—both in terms of what it serves and the industry’s labor practices—the McDonald’s clown was depicted as a dour taskmaster, frowning and angry, his gigantic red shoe being shined by, as Banksy’s website put it, “a real live boy.”
Today the mascot, which debuted in 1963 (and was played by Willard Scott), is making way for a new, less tarnished figure: Happy, an animated Happy Meal box with cartoonish limbs and a gaping, rather terrifying grin. This, according to a news release from the chain, is the face that will “encourage kids to enjoy fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy and wholesome beverages such as water or juice.” Along with the mascot, McDonald’s announced a new option for Happy Meals: Go-Gurt Low-Fat Strawberry Yogurt. The potential french fry swap has 50 calories in a serving and, according to the press release, 25 percent less sugar than other popular yogurt brands. The actual amount of sugar, however, is conspicuously missing.
Whether the maniacal grin of Happy will be able to convince kids to buy into the “healthy” agenda that McDonald’s has been pushing of late remains to be seen. But behind that exaggerated grin—and the half-baked efforts at reducing the amount of processed sugar and other calories in its foods—is a company dealing with a popular culture that’s increasingly skeptical of its business and consumers who appear to be less interested in eating its food. They weren’t all that excited about eating McWings either, and Go-Gurt Low-Fat Strawberry Yogurt, like its creepy new mascot, doesn’t smack of a marketing plan that’s going to be a blockbuster hit.