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Burger mascot Ronald McDonald faces a tough challenge with growing clown hysteria

Fears of a Clown

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It's tough work being the face of fast food. For more than 50 years, Ronald McDonald has peddled burgers and fries for the leading name in drive-thru dining. With a global brand valued at almost $40 billion, ranking 12th in the world just ahead of Disney, according to consultancy agency Interbrand, McDonald's has risen to the top of the world of fast food on the back of a clown in a yellow jumpsuit. But it hasn't all been one fun trip to the PlayPlace.

Responding to long-standing criticism that using a clown to sell cheeseburgers was distasteful in the wake of growing rates of childhood obesity, McDonald's representatives refused to abandon their treasured mascot. During last year's annual shareholders meeting, McDonald's CEO Steve Easterbrook assured those in the room that "Ronald's here to stay," according to reports from the Associated Press.

Now McDonald's faces a new threat to the company's brand — the growing number of reports of people dressed as clowns, terrorizing communities across the country. Beginning in Greenville, S.C., with reports of clowns lurking along the woods behind an apartment complex allegedly attempting to lure children from their home, similar incidents have continued to pop up elsewhere. Just last week, a student at Charleston Southern University told police that a knife-wielding person in a clown mask chased her into a friend's apartment. Recognizing a possible P.R. nightmare, McDonald's took quick action to reduce the public presence of its beloved spokes-clown.

"McDonald's and franchisees in local markets are mindful of the current climate around clown sightings in communities and as such are being thoughtful with respect to Ronald McDonald's participation in community events for the time being," McDonald's spokeswoman Terri Hickey told CNN. "This does not mean that there will be no appearances by Ronald McDonald, but that we are being thoughtful as to Ronald McDonald's participation in various community events at this time."

But in withdrawing Ronald McDonald from a prominent position in the public spotlight, McDonald's faces a greater challenge. How does this court jester of consumption fit into the modern world? Serving as the company's official chief happiness officer and ambassador for an active lifestyle after being named to the position in 2004, Ronald's role has changed with the times. With the corporation employing more fitness strategies into its marketing efforts, Ronald has served as the face of promoting a more active — or at the very least — more balanced lifestyle.

In a 2006 academic article published in Leadership Quarterly, professor David Boje of New Mexico State University and Carl Rhodes of the University of Technology in Sydney examined this corporate shift and the part Ronald played as the representative of a changing brand. At the time, there were at least 250 official Ronalds in the United States — each one dealing with the stigma that had become attached to the McDonald's name. The company partnered with Oprah Winfrey's personal fitness trainer, Bob Greene, and former Miss Universe Alicia Machado — yes, she of Donald Trump fame — to help connect and appeal to health-conscious consumers. In 2003, the burger giant sold approximately 150 million salads to customers in the United States. As the menu changed, so did Ronald.

"Ronald has been reincarnated by McDonald's as part of its pursuit of a health-conscious vision," wrote Boje and Rhodes. "For Ronald, this does not just mean being an entertaining clown."

Now, with creepy clown hysteria sweeping the nation, Ronald faces a challenge that strikes at the character's core. There is no question that the nation, and perhaps the world's most recognizable clown will weather this recent epidemic, just as he managed to do when children's health advocates called for his termination. Ronald will continue on as the greasepaint-slathered face of McDonald's — as both a clown and a versatile corporate leader. And standing as one of the few remaining representations of the non-threatening clown, maybe Ronald can help assuage the coulrophobia, or fear of clowns, that as become so ingrained in modern popular culture.

As Boje and Rhodes wrote, "It is unprecedented for a clown to hold corporate positions, such as a role in the latest global strategy and corporate transformation. Nevertheless, McDonald's blurred the lines between clown and 'real' leader so as to enable corporate renewal through supporting the entry of new and more diverse business practice and organizational identity."

They later add, "As we have sought to demonstrate, Ronald has an important transformational leadership function at McDonald's. In doing this, he is more than just a conduit for a corporate message. Ronald's ancient clown heritage and super human imagery has been a powerful force for transformation."

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