Nearly 30 years ago, Hollywood released the horror flick “Candyman” about a Chicago graduate student who researches an urban legend involving a boogeyman who materializes whenever you say his name five times in the mirror. The screenplay was adapted from a Clive Barker short story, which in turn echoed another urban legend popular in the 1960s and 1970s. The earlier one juiced up countless suburban slumber parties when packs of preteens locked themselves in the bathroom to repeat “Bloody Mary” 13 times in the mirror, waiting for an apparition to show up and rip their faces off.
This Halloween, select Burger King restaurants in Denmark and Sweden will resurrect the old horror trope while twisting the knife in the competition. For diners who dare, they will be able to walk into a bathroom at these secret locations and say “canceled clown” three times to the mirror. The lights will shut down, the room will turn dark, and patrons will quickly come face to face with a raggedy clown with eyes that glow red. To be honest, the apparition looks more like Carrot Top after a particularly harsh bender.
Anyway, the stunt in Sweden and Denmark (the unofficial motto of Scandinavia: “Our tax rates scare Americans more than clowns”) is a not-so-sly reference to Ronald McDonald’s current employment status. If you’ll recall, the world’s largest fast-food chain told Ronnie to pack up his fright wig and go in 2016. He wasn’t officially retired, but he was relegated to parades and charity events, where he could enjoy an emeritus status without frightening the kids or invoking memories of the creepy clown scare of 2016.
Plenty of pundits have tried to figure out why Ronald was shown the door. The creepy clown trend may have been a convenient excuse for Mickey D’s to mothball the mascot, but the chain had plenty of other reasons, too: complaints that Ronald’s appeal to kids only contributed to childhood obesity. A corporate push to tap into the massive millennial market, which, as far as we know, has little use for clowns. A survey that indicated Americans are more afraid of clowns than terrorist attacks, or Obamacare (at least in 2016, the Year That Clowns Died).
Leave it to the underdog to tweak the bright red nose of Ronald. Despite the huge success of its Impossible Whopper, Burger King still ranks several notches below McDonald’s in annual revenue, and the chain clearly isn’t above mocking an underemployed clown to improve its market position.
In fact, this year, Burger King India ran a lonely hearts ad in which Ronald McDonald sits by himself on a park bench while a solo violin sighs in the background. Text flashes on-screen to undercut the melancholy: “It sucks to be lonely. Especially on Valentine’s Day.” To stave off loneliness, BK India suggested diners upload a selfie with Ronald to earn a free Whopper, which of course are beef-free.
Cue Smokey Robinson.
The Scandinavian stunt trades on the same theme as a 2017 Halloween BK promotion, dubbed #ScaryClownNight, in which diners dressed as clowns would get a free Whopper. “Come as a clown, eat like a king,” the ad promised. Both play up the inherent creepiness of clowns, those jesters with the painted faces, bulbous red noses and feet so large they could serve as paddle wheels.
Burger King clearly understands the irony of demonizing mascots when it has one of the creepiest in the biz. The chain seems to enjoy playing up the disquieting qualities of its king. Remember the ad in which the common man wakes up next to His Majesty of the Perpetually Laughing Face? Creep factor: off the charts. And who can forget the Burger King Kong ad? (More important: Who would like to forget it?)
I don’t know. In the current political climate, with the rise of autocrats and their threats to Western democracy, the Rascal King mascot doesn’t play like it once did (if it ever did). I mean, peddling Happy Meals to kids isn’t great. But when I watch a dude, decked out in robes, a crown and lots of jewelry, passing out calorie-laden morsels to the masses, I see much darker things than a clown in a mirror.
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