13 Facts About Mac Tonight & Why McDonald's Got Rid Of The Mascot

Mac Tonight was a fictional character featured in McDonald's commercials from 1986 to 1989. Despite his brief stint in the limelight, the moon-headed singer, with his trademark sunglasses, beaming smile, and stylish tuxedo, has left an indelible impression. And while some have found him charming, others have found him downright creepy. Then there are those who have misused the character to promote their own, sometimes offensive agenda.

The Mac Tonight marketing campaign was equally as imaginative as the character himself. The campaign was an innovative and memorable part of McDonald's advertising history. The surreal-looking mascot has been portrayed seated at a piano on top of a giant Big Mac atop a cloud and even on a rollercoaster. These dreamlike settings, coupled with catchy jingles, added to Mac Tonight's appeal and helped to cement him as a beloved icon of America's 1980s fast-food culture.

McDonald's retired Mac Tonight just a few years after he hit the spotlight. While the exact reasons for this decision are unclear, many believe that it had something to do with the litigation the franchise was facing at the time. Regardless of the reason behind his discontinuation, Mac Tonight remains one of the most fascinating characters to have graced the world of advertising.

1. McDonald's introduced Mac Tonight to promote evening dining

Since McDonald's characters, such as Ronald McDonald and the Hamburglar, are typically aimed at kids, Mac Tonight was an anomaly. Instead of advertising the chain's fare to families, the moon-faced crooner promoted the idea that McDonald's was about much more than just daytime dining. Interestingly, Mac Tonight was one of the few McDonald's mascots who didn't appear in McDonaldland, which is a series of commercials in a fictional universe used by the chain's advertising between 1971 and 2003.

Mac Tonight had a smooth and enigmatic demeanor, and he was definitely a departure from the typical style of McDonald's advertising, as Russ Klettke, the account executive who managed the character, explained in an interview with Star News that the mascot is a departure from McDonald's usual advertising style. Klettke explained that the mascot is cool and smooth, he appeals to both children and adults. The mascot helped market late-night dining at McDonald's to adults. 

2. Mac Tonight was an immediate success

Mac Tonight was the brainchild of an L.A.-based advertising agency, Davis, Johnson, Mogul & Colombatto (DJMC), which created the character after McDonald's executives asked the firm to help them increase the chain's evening sales. The first four advertisements featuring Mac Tonight cost $500,000 to make, and while the spots initially only aired in California, the advertising proved highly effective and was soon expanded to Oregon, Las Vegas, and Phoenix.

The Mac Tonight marketing campaign was so successful that McDonald's executives decided to roll it out across the country in 1987. The launch of the nationwide campaign was marked by the mascot's appearance at a McDonald's restaurant in Boca Raton, Florida, where he performed on the building's rooftop. The success of the campaign was further evidenced by a survey conducted by Ad Watch, which reported that consumer recall of McDonald's advertisements doubled in the month after Mac Tonight hit the national airwaves.

3. Mac Tonight commercials featured Doug Jones

Before Doug Jones appeared in such popular films and television series as "Pan's Labyrinth," "Batman Returns," and "Star Trek: Discovery," he portrayed Mac Tonight in McDonald's marketing campaign. Doug Jones wore a huge moon-shaped mask and played the character in several advertisements that ran on American television. 

Peter Coutroulis, former creative director at DJMC, told Mel Magazine that Jones was chosen for the role because he was tall and thin and he had mime experience. He was highly animated, which was essential for the Mac character, making Jones a wonderful choice. Notably, Jones credits his stint as Mac Tonight with paving his way to success. In 2013, Jones told Collider that he played the Mac Tonight character in 27 commercials over a three-year period. His career took an unexpected turn and led to several referrals. Perhaps this is why Jones ended up coming back to do two Mac Tonight commercials in the mid-1990s during a short-lived revival of the character.

4. Mac Tonight was based on the fictional character Max Headroom

The character of Mac Tonight is said to have been inspired by Max Headroom, a futuristic TV presenter with overly-prominent features and oversized sunglasses played by Matt Frewer. And while Max Headroom would have likely been computer generated, in the early 1980s, the kind of technology that would achieve that feat was still nothing but a distant dream.

According to the former creative director at Davis, Johnson, Mogul & Colombatto (DJMC) (the ad agency that brought us Mac Tonight) Peter Coutroulis, selecting the right character was crucial to the success of McDonald's Mac Tonight campaign (via The New York Times). And while the firm's executives tossed up using real people and celebrities in the advertisements, ultimately, it was decided that McDonald's would have its own mascot. And according to Coutroulis, this is where Max Headroom became an inspiration. 

DJMC's decision to model Mac Tonight came before the fictional character disturbed a broadcast of "Dr Who ” on November 22, 1987, in Chicago. The incident saw a man disguised as Max Headroom interrupt the show for an entire 88 seconds with unintelligible noises. At one stage, the caricature was even spanked with a fly swatter. According to Ranker, the culprit and their motives remain a mystery. To cut a long story short, we aren't sure if the signal intrusion affected McDonald's Mac Tonight campaign.

5. Mac Tonight is based on a controversial song about murder

McDonald's advertisement campaign was set to the melody of "Mack the Knife," which is a pretty unusual choice considering that the song's original lyrics are about violence and murder. The song was first written for The Threepenny Opera, a 1928 German number about a man named Macheath and his violent acts. In 1959, a version of the song by Bobby Darin became a No. 1 hit in the U.S. The tune was also covered by Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, and Liberace. 

Since it was the song's catchy tune, rather than its lyrics, that played a role in its selection for the Mac Tonight advertising campaign, the song was repurposed into a PG-rated jingle. And instead of talking about bloody murder, the new lyrics celebrated the joys of late-night snacking with lines such as, "When the clock strikes half past six, babe. Time to head for golden lights. It's a good time for a great taste. Dinner at McDonald's. It's Mac Tonight!"

When confronted, McDonald's rejected the accusation that "Mack the Knife" was not suitable for use in advertising. The corporation's national marketing vice president, David Green, defended the chain's decision to use the tune, saying that the lyrics were well-known and the song is representative of the music of the '60s (via Mental Floss). For what it's worth, "Mack the Knife" was well-known by Baby Boomers who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s when it was a chart-topping hit.

6. McDonald's was sued by the heirs of Bobby Darin

Ironically, the catchy melody of "Mack the Knife" that popularized Mac Tonight also ultimately led to the character's downfall. In 1989, McDonald's discontinued the advertising campaign featuring the character after the son of the late Bobby Darin, who passed away in 1973, sued the fast food franchise for over $10 million. The lawsuit alleged that the Mac Tonight marketing campaign had infringed on Bobby Darin's singing style and mannerisms. While the charges were dropped, Mac Tonight never regained his former level of popularity.

Since Mac Tonight performed "Mack the Knife" with revamped lyrics and Bobby Darin wasn't even the artist behind the original song, the lawsuit probably lacked a strong legal basis. Perhaps former creative director at DJMC, Peter Coutroulis, summed this idea up best for Mel Magazine, saying that while McDonald's had the rights to the song, the brand didn't really put up a fight. According to Coutroulis, if Mac had been as popular and lucrative as Ronald McDonald, the company may have fought harder. 

7. Mac Tonight aired in Asia

Decades after the popularity of Mac Tonight had dwindled in the U.S., the character resurfaced on the opposite side of the globe: In 2007, the crescent-faced musician started appearing in McDonald's ads in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines. This time around, however, the mascot was no longer an actor in a foam mask but rather a CGI character. While the new technology allowed for a more dynamic performance, the chain's Southeast Asia campaign was short-lived, ending in 2010.

In the Southeast Asian commercials, Mac Tonight exchanges his piano for a saxophone, which he can be seen playing on the rooftop of a McDonald's store. The lyrics of the new jingle are also different from the original, emphasizing the fact that McDonald's outlets can be accessed 24/7: "All day and all night, step out for a bite. For treats that delight, 24 hours a day. Come down to Mac Tonight, hey. Chill out, [name of country,] McDonald's is 24 hours. Come down to Mac Tonight, 24 hours 'round the clock. Come on down to Mac Tonight."

8. Mac Tonight was appropriated to promote racism

Although McDonald's had given Mac Tonight the ax, the character never really died off completely. And just like with all things that can be used for good or evil, Mac Tonight fell prey to the darker side of the internet: It all started in 2007 when racist clips featuring Mac Tonight (now referred to as Moon Man) started appearing online. For instance, one of the first Moon Man posts showed the singer rapping "Money in the Bank" by Lil Scrappy with the words "KKK, KKK" thrown into the mix.

It didn't take long before Moon Man was appropriated by the alt-right to propagate hate. The situation reached a new low in 2015 when racist imagery featuring the Mac Tonight look-alike started appearing on image boards 4chan and 8chan and later YouTube. Additionally, during the presidential election in 2016, Trump supporters started investing in billboards displaying Moon Man alongside a fusion of Donald Trump and Pepe the Frog, a character appropriated by the alt-right. The Anti-Defamation League has classified the Moon Man as a "hate symbol." 

9. Some McDonald's restaurants used to entertain patrons with Mac Tonight animatronics

Mac Tonight, just like Ronald McDonald, was more than just a television character. The dreamlike mascot also sometimes made appearances in stores to the delight of McDonald's customers. For instance, when the Mac Tonight advertising campaign went nationwide, the character appeared in front of 1,000 people at a McDonald's store in Florida.

To satisfy the demand for Mac Tonight, McDonald's started placing animatronics of the mascot (or robots designed to imitate his actions and movements) in its outlets. Just like the original Mac Tonight, the animatronics would usually play the piano and sing. However, maintenance of the animatronics ceased after the mascot was retired by the franchise, leaving creepy-looking motionless figures at various outlets.

One of the last (if not the very last) Mac Tonight animatronics can be found in a McDonald's outlet in Orlando. According to The Story of Mac Tonight's Animatronic, the robot still plays music but no longer works. One YouTube user confirms this, saying that they visited the Orlando location, and an employee told them that the air pressure seeped into the electrics of the robot, making it difficult to fix. 

10. Mac Tonight's head was put up for auction

The foam crescent moon head worn by actor Doug Jones in one of the Mac Tonight commercials went up for auction in 2018, revealing the truly terrifying reality behind the set piece. Prop Store, where the giant head was listed, described it as being tall with blue eyes, white teeth, and black 1950s-style sunglasses. This Mac also had a cable-operated bottom lip. The platform also estimated that the prop would sell for between $2,500 and $3,500 (we don't actually know if it was ever sold and for how much).

Netizens were quick to point out the creepy nature of the item and its unsettling bright blue eyes, with one social media user Tweeting that Mac Tonight's head was up for auction and that it was even scarier without the sunglasses. One Reddit reviewer echoes a similar sentiment, saying that it was horrible. Another Reddit user agrees, remarking that it would likely give them nightmares. 

11. Mac Tonight has been referenced in The Simpsons

"The Simpsons" is well known for its extensive use of popular culture references, from film and television to music and literature. Over the years, these references have become a signature of the animated television show, helping to make it the cultural phenomenon that it is today. As such, it's not surprising that McDonald's, as well as Mac Tonight, have both been featured on the show.

In an episode of "The Simpsons" entitled "Kiss Kiss Bang Bangalore," Homer enlists the help of a Mac Tonight cardboard cutout to watch over his family after he's transferred to India for work. Mac Tonight also makes an appearance in "Burger Kings," where he sings in Homer's dreams to persuade him to take a stance against a fast food restaurant owned by Mr. Burns called X-Cell-Ent Burger.

Additionally, McDonald's itself has been referenced on the show at least nine times. In one episode, we find out that the fictional town of Springfield has very few McDonald's outlets because of a scheme concocted by Krusty the Clown and Fat Tony. Meanwhile, in another episode, we see Homer express amazement at the fact that McDonald's serves wine in Italy.

12. There are multiple petitions to bring back Mac Tonight on Change.org

Normally, Change.org is used by both individuals and organizations to start petitions about serious causes such as environmental protection, human rights, and animal welfare. However, since the platform is open to all, users also utilize it to petition about more lighthearted issues, such as resurrecting their favorite characters from the dead.

While the petition to bring back Mac Tonight may not have the largest number of signatures on his petitions, it has received a significant amount of attention on Change.org. In fact, the McDonald's mascot is the subject of numerous open and closed petitions that want to see him back in the spotlight.

One petition creator proclaims that modern McDonald's commercials do not have enough vitality. They commented that McDonald's needs more commercials like Mac Tonight that both adults and children can enjoy. In a similar vein, another petitioner said that their mission is to get Mac Tonight back on television. The commenter notes that the Mac Tonight is one of the best commercials in the world. 

13. Mac Tonight has been featured on two different NASCAR cars

As a marketing tool, Mac Tonight ended his run back in the late 1980s. Yet his memory has lived on in, of all places, NASCAR. Not once, but twice have NASCAR teams adorned their cars with a Mac Tonight paint scheme. The first instance occurred back in 1997 with driver Bill Elliott. The NASCAR Hall of Famer's blue-clad, No. 94 car featured Mac Tonight and the McDonald's logo on the hood. Elliott would go on to drive the vehicle in five races that year.

Nearly 20 years later, the Mac Tonight car came back. In 2016, driver Jamie McMurray adopted the same paint scheme for his No. 1 car when he raced in the Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. The vintage design choice was not entirely out of the blue, as the race took place during the venue's second annual "Throwback Weekend."

"I am excited that McDonald's is bringing back the Mac Tonight paint scheme for this race," McMurray said to Fox Sports. "Last year was so much fun to see all the different throwback looks that teams had for the Southern 500 race. I think that Darlington has done a great job to get so many of the teams to participate and have a unique weekend to celebrate the history of NASCAR."