Full disclaimer. I wrote this article while I was hungry.
We don’t generally consider mascots as characters in their own right and maybe that’s a shame. These mascots, particularly if they are humanoid in appearance, often have a detailed backstory that is overlooked by general members of the public. Here are the surprising origins of five fictional mascots. I hope you enjoy.
1 Ronald McDonald
The origins of the McDonald’s clown are mysterious and several parties have claimed to have created the famous mascot. In 1963 “Ronald McDonald, the Hamburger-Happy Clown” had his TV debut. The clown was portrayed by Willard Scott and sported a tin can on his nose, a tray on his hand and a second tray around his waist. In his first year Ronald McDonald appeared in TV separate adverts advertising the McDonald’s restaurant.
Willard argues that he created the character while the McDonald’s company insist he only portrayed the clown. In 1966 it was finally agreed that Ronald McDonald looked like a bad Batman villain and after a drastic revamp the clown obtained his now familiar attire. Originally Ronald McDonald lived in McDonaldland with Mayor McCheese, the Hamburglar, Grimace, Birdie the Early Bird and The Fry Kids. More recently Ronald McDonald has transcended from the animated world to our planet and can be seen interacting with human children at McDonald’s restaurants.
Surprisingly the rules for playing this iconic character are incredibly strict. Anyone who wishes to portray the character must first attend the Ronald McDonald Clown College. Once they have graduated the actors must make sure that, like Micky Mouse, there is only one Ronald McDonald in a McDonald’s restaurant at any one time around the globe. They are not allowed to eat any McDonald’s products whilst in character as it may smudge their make up. They are also not allowed to reveal their real identity which sounds understandable in theory but when an actor playing the clown had a minor car crash in the year 2000, he was detained by police for refusing to give his real name.
While the McDonald’s company only acknowledges that eight people have portrayed the clown officially, and that everyone else are merely “Ronald’s helpers”, the most famous man behind the make up was Geoffrey Giuliano. Giuliano only played the clown for a year and a half but he was never happy in the role. Once he left the McDonald’s company he revealed all the secrets about playing famous character. Disturbingly Giuliano explained that whilst in character he was not allowed to directly ask or tell kids to eat McDonald’s products. He could only strongly imply it. Giuliano also explained that if a child was to ask where McDonald products came from or how they were made he had to answer that everything was organically grown together in the field.
Ironically enough, before taking on the role of the famous clown Giuliano played another fast food mascot, the Burger King!
2) The Burger King
The Burger King’s history is almost as creepy as Ronald McDonald’s.
The first Burger King mascot was called the Kurger Bing (why they didn’t start on the name Burger King, I don’t know) who looks like a character from Dexter’s Laboratory. On TV adverts The Kurger Bing would visit Burger King restaurants and hang out with his court wizard who would magic the food into existence. The Kurger Bing would also give small children presents in addition to Burger King food, which must have raised a few eyebrows, even back then! His slogan was “Burger King, where kids are king!”
The Kurger Bing was replaced by the Marvellous Magical Burger King in 1976 who bares some resemblance to the character we are familiar with. Like his cartoon counterpart The Burger King ruled the Burger King Kingdom and had friends that included Sir Shake-A-Lot, a knight made out of Burger King cups, The Burger Thing, The Duke of Doubt and The Wizard of Fries. This Burger King was dressed as a tudor with a red beard, his design was said to be based of Robin Hood’s with a palette swap.
In 2004 Burger King’s marketing was taken over by the Crispin Porter + Bogusky company who redesigned the character. They kept the overall tudor design but made him resemble King Henry VIII… which is a strange choice when you consider that King Henry VIII was infamous for being obese. Instead of being a cartoon The Burger King was portrayed by an actor in a full costume complete with a giant head and creepy grin. This character, now simply referred to as, The King, would appear in random locations in his TV adverts and offer food to anybody in the vicinity.
Worryingly the King had a habit of magically appearing in people’s bed while they were sleeping and presenting them food when they woke up. These adverts included a sleazy voiceover saying “Wake up with the King”
The King was retired in the mid naughties but returned in 2010 and is still active today. Thankfully he’s stopped giving food to children and appearing in stranger’s bed but personally I still find his mask creepy.
3) The KFC Colonel
The story of Colonel Sanders’ rise to fame is surprisingly inspirational compared to the above entries and I’m surprised the story hasn’t been picked up by Hollywood. Harland Sanders was over sixty years old, bankrupt and living in his car when he founded the first KFC restaurant.
In 1952 Sanders came to an agreement with the Shell Oil Company. He and his family could live in a gas station in the state of Kentucky (or as we call them in England, petrol stations) if a majority of the station’s profits would be returned to Shell. Aside from selling fuel, the station also sold food and drinks including fried chicken wings which Sanders cooked himself. The station didn’t have a dining area at first so motorists would eat at Sander’s dining room table with his family. Eventually word of Sander’s famous fried chicken resulted in people from all over the state traveling to his gas station to sample the chicken. Sanders earned enough money to buy a disused motel across the freeway and turned that into the first official KFC restaurant. Gradually Sanders began to open more restaurants across the state and eventually KFC became a global brand.
After his phenomenal success Sanders was given the rank of Colonel by the state of Kentucky which is the equivalent of receiving an OBE from the Queen. Although many mocked Sanders for this achievement Sanders took his title seriously. He replaced his wardrobe with white suits dyed his goatee white and brought himself a white Cadillac. This image of Sanders is the now famous image that we associate with the KFC company.
The success of the company was put down to Sanders secret recipe of eleven herbs and spices used in his fried chicken. This recipe was a closely guarded secret and each KFC chain only know a part of the recipe so that it can not be stolen. In his later life Colonel Sanders would visit KFC restaurants and complain that the company had changed his recipe. He described the gravy as “sludge” and the chicken as “shit”. This resulted in KFC attempting to sue their own mascot… and losing the court case.
Colonel Sanders died in 1980 and was buried in his famous white suit and bowtie. His fried chicken, for better or worse, lives on.
4) The Starbucks Woman
Caffeine has been label “the greatest addiction in the world” and for good reason. Caffeine gives your brain a burst of dopamine, increases concentration, memory and mood while also reducing tiredness and fatigue. You can not overdose of caffeine, unless you take it in it’s purest form and the only long term harm it can inflict is draining your bank account. It many cases around the world, having your first caffeine drink is seen as a right of passage. I remember having my first cup of tea when I was eighteen years old and I remember having Earl Grey every Thursday morning during my Media Law and Ethics module at university to help me survive the lecture’s dreaded droning. It is little surprise then, that in the past twenty years coffee shops have sprung up in most high streets and big cities. Among these coffee shops is Starbucks.
Although Starbucks was first founded in Seattle in 1971 it only became a global brand in the late 2000’s. The image of The Starbucks Woman, as she has been dubbed by fans, is world famous. Yet few people wonder who the woman really is…
The Starbucks Woman’s name is Melusine and she is often depicted as a mermaid or a siren. Tales of Melusine date back to the late 1300’s and as such the exact origins of the character are unclear. She appears in the King Arthur mythos but according to English court records she also served as the grandmother to King Henry VIII. Regardless of which time period she is placed her story remains the same.
One day a rich nobleman stumbled across Melusine in a forest, bathing. Filled with lust the King demands that Melusine return to his castle to marry him. Melusine eventually agrees to the marriage on the condition that the King never disturbs her on Saturdays as that is the day in which she baths. Needless to say, one Saturday the King spies on Melusine while she is bathing and discovers that she has two fish tails. How the King didn’t notice this before eludes me. Enraged at the King, Melsuine flees and is never seen again.
The character of Melsuine was meant to represent the dual nature of females and her tail became a symbol for alchemists who gave it the meaning of unity. It was this symbol of unity that Starbucks incorporated into their logo. Similar to the King who could not resist Melusine’s lures, Starbucks hoped that their customers would be unable to resist their products.
5 – Aleksandr Orlov from Compare the Meerkat.com
I don’t normally watch the TV adverts. I will fast forward or go and feed my caffeine addiction. Yet I do like the Compare the Market/Compare the Meekat adverts. They features a group of Meerkats who are annoyed that they are being plagued by enquiries about the Compare the Market website when they host the Compare the Meerkat website. The meerkats include Aleksandr Orlov the CEO of Compare the Meerkat and Sergei the Head of IT plus their respective families. A poll in 2012 crowned Aleksandr Orlov as the most successful mascot of the year across the UK. The success of these characters have led to them creating a real Compare the Meerkat.com website which sponsor Coronation Street (a popular British soap), host cinema deals and promote giveaways. The company has also released their own toy line and have donated millions of pounds to Meerkat charities across the globe. In 2010 Orlov published his autobiography titled, A Simples Life: The Life and Times of Aleksandr Orlov. The autobiography received more sales than Cheryl Cole, Russell Brand and Dannii Minogue’s autobiographies all of which were released in the same year.
Orlov’s book explains his journey with his family from Russia to England, the Meerkat’s war with the Mongooses’ and how he become a millionaire.
There are some inconsistencies between Orlov and real Meerkats and I would not forgive myself if I did not point them out. A Meerkat only lives about fifteen years despite the fact that Sergi is described as seventy seven years old. It has also been reported that adult Meekats will sacrifice their children in order to escape ambushes and even push them onto roads to see if traffic is coming. They may look cute but a single bite from a Meerkat pup can easily break a human’s finger.
Thank you for reading this list and I hope you enjoyed it. Can you think of any other fictional mascots with an interesting history? Let me know in the comments or on social media and I’ll see you next time.