The History of Mac Tonight
Its franchise model made McDonald’s a powerhouse, but to stay on top of the fast food world, the company kept innovating. They might have started as a quick meal on the go that tended to get eaten at lunch, but soon they looked to other meals.
First, they conquered breakfast, and McDonald’s success of making breakfast a fast food meal, helped keep the company at the top for decades. Having conquered lunch and breakfast, in 1986, they decided to take on dinner and while doing so created a new memorable advertising character, Mac Tonight.
Mac Tonight was a moon-sized success. During its short lifespan, the ad had a higher recognition rate in consumer surveys than New Coke, which had a massive advertising campaign.
While Ronald and his pals have done a great job representing the restaurant chain, for pure impact in just a few years, Mac Tonight has outdone them all.
So let’s take a look at the history and evolution of this beloved character.
The campaign and its spokes-moon would eventually go world-wide, but it started with a local advertising campaign centered around Southern California. There, a group of franchisees, seeing that they already had a strong hold on breakfast and lunch, wanted to encourage customers to visit their restaurants after 4 pm.
They would hire the advertising firm, Davis, Johnson, Mogul & Colombatto (D.J.M.C.), now Davis Ellen, to work on the campaign. Their work on Mac and his explosive growth would become a big deal for D.J.M.C. Which up until this point was mostly focused on regional advertising.
The idea for Mac started with the song “Mack the Knife,” which was written by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht for ”The Threepenny Opera.” It would become a big hit for Bobby Darren in 1959.
The creatives at the firm, especially company president Brad A. Ball and creative director, Peter Coutroulis were sure that this song was the perfect core of an idea that just needed fleshing out. It was catchy and well-remembered by Baby Boomers, so they just listened to different versions trying to come up with replacement lyrics for the song.
During this creative phase, they also tried to conceive of what this new character would look like. Would it be a famous musician, a stylish, but more generic piano player, or perhaps something just a bit more special?
According to Coutroulis, the idea flowed directly from the song. Connecting words like McDonald’s, Mac the Knife, and Night would ultimately lead to the name “Mac Tonight.” From there, he said, the idea just flowed into the final creation.
Ultimately, they settled upon an unexpected creation. A moon-faced crooner who, seated behind a dazzling piano, would sing the praises of eating at McDonald’s after dark.
This campaign was just what McDonald’s needed at the time, something different. In 1986, the fast food wars were getting heated and growth at the Golden Arches had slowed to a trickle.
That year, franchised-based fast food had grown at what appeared to be a respectable, 9.2 percent. But about 6 percent of that increase was through the addition of new restaurants. Growth at many established restaurants had started to decline.
This stagnation and decline was mainly attributed to a maturing market and increased competition from new chains.
Dinner or meals after 4pm seemed like the perfect solution. It could potentially add profit to existing stores without cannibalizing existing meals or product offerings.
With a budget of $500,000, D.J.M.C. would produce four commercials. Each one had Mac front and center, playing his piano and singing a catchy new jingle set to the tune of Mac the Knife.
The spots would air in Southern California, parts of the US Southwest, and Oregon. When the Mac Tonight advertising began, sales shot through the roof. McDonald’s at the time not only considered it a great campaign, but it was so effective that executive thought it was one of their best advertising campaigns ever.
People were intrigued by the ads and were calling the company wanting more information about this mysterious new character.
According to Russ Klettke, who was an Account Executive working with McDonald’s at the time, “He appeals to the kids who are old enough to be too cool to like Ronald, but he attracts adults, too.”
Some locations even began using Mac Tonight as their representative at special events. Here is a restaurant using Mac as a perfect tie-in for their Fifties themed night.
It looks like it was a great night of wholesome fun that was aimed squarely at Baby Boomers who had grown up in the Fifties. I wonder who won that Mac Tonight impersonation contest?
The ads were so popular that even TV stations were getting in on the act of hyping this season’s “Lunar kind of guy.”
Very quickly, the moon-faced mascot went nationwide and eventually went international. After transferring creative control of the character to their national advertising agency, Leo Burnett in 1988, they would make 25 more commercials featuring Mac.
He would make live appearances, see his image added to a lot of merchandise, and even get his own Happy Meal and toys.
A Max Headroom Connection?
At the time of his release, people would compare Mac to another famous mascot running in ads at the time, Max Headroom. The comparisons were loosely justified, but they had enough similar traits that it’s easy to make some connections.
I have not been able to find anyone at McDonald’s or their ad agencies who credit Max directly. But they were both mascots for huge good companies, they had similar first names, wore sunglasses, and were inexplicably very popular. So draw your own conclusions.
While no official connection has been made between the two characters, I did find this interesting McDonald’s opening event where Mac and Max were both featured in some form. If you had gone to this brand-new location, you could have met Mac in person AND saw the “infamous” Max Headroom van. Maybe you could have gotten a photo with both of them? If you did, PLEASE contact me.
What was the Max Headroom Van??
I have never been able to find a photo of this storied promotional vehicle, but for over a year it crisscrossed America promoting Coca-Cola. The van, which is often referred to as the Max Headroom Video Van, was a themed van with television sets where Max Headroom could do his thing.
When Max wasn’t talking, the TVs would show music videos. After being entertained by the van, some lucky fans could even pick up free merchandise that they would give away. The Max Headroom Van not only did various restaurant events (where they served Coca-Cola), but would also show up at County and State Fairs.
Mac Tonight is not a citizen of McDonaldland. Yet.
Despite what I write in my fan fiction, they never had Mac Tonight crossover with any other character from McDonaldland. So no Ronald and Mac teaming up to foil the Hamburglar.
The initial reasoning behind why this was the case is sound. Mac is supposed to represent more of an adult “dinner” version of McDonald’s. Whereas the characters of McDonaldland are for the kids. But once they released the Mac Tonight Happy Meal, that changed everything, and it should have opened the door for Mac to meet Ronald.
Sadly because of timing on the ending of the ad campaign, this idea was never explored.
I haven’t found an official statement from McDonald’s about this, but as a fan of Mac, I want to believe it could still happen someday.
Nationally, these characters never appeared together in advertising, but that doesn’t mean they never crossed paths. When restaurants had special events, they had a lot of leeway to which characters they could use. So at many restaurant openings and re-openings at the time, Mac Tonight would be partnered with an older character.
Here is an example event where Mac and Hamburglar will be there to greet you at a newly renovated restaurant in Florida.
Behind the Mask
The voice of Mac Tonight was provided by Roger Behr. Behr, who passed away in 2018, was a very talented actor who voiced two Transformers, Runabout and Runamuck.
He also has a memorable appearance in the film, Defending Your Life. There, he plays a mediocre comedian trying to entertain people in the afterlife. The real treat is right before his scene ends in the film, he sings!
The person behind that moon mask would go onto have quite a career. The very talented actor Doug Jones (Hocus Pocus, Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth, Star Trek Discovery) would play Mac in 27 commercials and credits the role with his career taking off.
In a 2013 interview in Collider, Jones said, “I was their crescent moon-headed Mac Tonight character for 27 commercials, over a three-year period. That’s when my career took a turn that I was not expecting. I didn’t know that was a career option. So, the referrals came from there.“
27 commercials seems like a lot, but with the success that the company was having with the character, why are we not seeing Mac Tonight advertising nowadays?
An Abrupt Departure
Mac’s reign as king of evening fast food eating came to an abrupt end in the United States in the Spring of 1990. In late 1989, the late Bobby Darrin’s estate filed a lawsuit against the Golden Arches and the advertising agency who created him.
They claimed that Mac Tonight was “too close” to Darin’s style and were seeking $10 million in damages. While they would eventually drop the suit, this put a damper on the use of the character, and McDonald’s moved into the Nineties without him.
Mac’s Nineties Resurgence
Mac would get a brief resurgence in 1996 and 1997 with Jones returning to the role for two more commercials. Another actor donned the moon mask for two others while Jones was unavailable while filming another project overseas.
The tone of the commercials is a little different, with a bit more of a retro rock & roll vibe. Still it is the Mac we know and love.
As you might guess, Mac’s return, just a few years after a hasty departure, coincided with a financial need by McDonald’s. In a 1996, McDonald’s was slipping in their competition with Burger King and Wendy’s.
That summer, sales at McDonald’s U.S. restaurants had dropped 2 percent. While at the same time, sales had gone up at both of their competitors, with Wendy’s clocking an amazing 9 percent increase.
Some blamed the competition, while others looked to the excessive growth of the chain domestically. So with pressure from within and without, the company wisely decided to trot out Mac Tonight.
This resurgence also gave Mac an opportunity to get involved in auto racing. In 1996 and 1997, he was featured on a NASCAR driven by Hall of Famer Bill Elliott.
The Moon Man Parody
In a weird twist, online hate groups have attempted to use the image of Mac Tonight to spread their message. It was one of those seemingly random internet creations that unfortunately caught on. Even the Anti-Defamation League saw that it was necessary to their online database of hate symbols.
This perhaps, above all other factors, has prevented Mac from making a well-deserved comeback.
Mac Tonight Animatronics
Many people have memories of seeing Mac perform live in their local McDonald’s. While many live performances, featuring actors in costume, did occur. What people are probably remembering are the Mac Tonight Animatronics.
Built by the Michigan company Mannetron, these singing musical robots graced several restaurants. There, they could perform all day without getting tired. Whoever thought of adding the Rockin’ Chickens in the background is a genius.
I was lucky enough to see one of these units in action many years ago. Sadly, it was eventually removed. I wish I had had the foresight to take photos or a video of the experience.
The Legacy of Mac Tonight
While Mac Tonight would pretty much disappear from U.S. advertising, he was well-remembered by people who saw him on TV. He would also linger in restaurant decor for a whole new generation to discover.
In 1988, at the height of his popularity, Mac Tonight advertising went international, so while Mac’s star might have faded in America, he continued to appear into the new Millennium in places like Singapore.
These things, combined with his presence on the internet in the form of his original ads, fan sites and communities, have kept Mac alive.
Will McDonald’s ever use him again? Are they nervous about the character’s random association with hate speech? It’s hard to know, but if fans keep pushing and believing, it can happen. Mac Tonight needs to be reclaimed and the only way to do that is to take him out of retirement and put him front and center, singing about what he loves most, eating at McDonald’s at night.