The Time Grimace Was Involved In A Major Lawsuit

Over the decades, McDonald's has found itself at the center of no shortage of lawsuits. Whether plaintiffs were alleging that its coffee was too hot or its environmental impact too great, the company's lawyers have kept active. But one case, in particular, had less to do with McDonald's food services and more with a certain purple creature who has recently enjoyed a renewed relevance in the TikTok age. 

Technically, the case was not specifically against Grimace. Rather, the contested issue was the origins of many McDonaldland characters, also including Mayor McCheese and Officer Big Mac. 

It all began in 1970, when Sid and Marty Krofft — at the time, hot children's television producers and puppeteers whose "H.R. Pufnstuf," "The Bugaloos," and "The Banana Splits" had successfully blended trippy costumed characters and variety television — were approached by an advertising agency called Needham, Harper & Steers, eager to pitch McDonald's on a "Pufnstuf" campaign. As alleged in a 1973 lawsuit and 1977 appeal, the Kroffts and Needham were in contact "six or seven more times" while developing a "McDonald advertising campaign based on the H.R. Pufnstuf series." Soon after, Marty Krofft was notified by Needham that the campaign had been canceled.

Among its denizens, the "Pufnstuf" series included a bumbling mayor, an incompetent police officer, and a multi-armed evil creature. In January of 1971, the first McDonaldland commercial was broadcast on network TV; subsequent ads, revolving around such characters as Mayor McCheese, Hamburglar, and four-armed "Evil Grimace," had a distinctly Krofft-ian feel.

Too many similarities to ignore

Grimace made his debut in a 1971 McDonaldland commercial as a dim, multi-armed milkshake thief. In the suit, Sid & Marty Krofft Television Productions alleged that his likeness too closely resembled its show's multi-armed villain: Seymour Spider. 

If the resemblance had stopped at Evil Grimace, it's possible the lawsuit wouldn't have a leg to stand on; since other characters also seemed to be deliberate lifts of Krofft creations, however, the courts ultimately sided with the television creators. "Both lands are governed by mayors who have disproportionately large round heads dominated by long wide mouths," the 1977 decision from the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit read. "They are assisted by 'Keystone cop' characters. Both lands feature strikingly similar crazy scientists and a multi-armed evil creature. It seems clear that such similarities go beyond merely that of the idea into the area of expression."

Grimace soon received an extreme makeover and came out the other side with not only two arms but also a much less devious attitude. Then, his love of milkshakes was far more innocent, the word "evil" had been dropped, and Grimace was a protagonist, often alongside Ronald McDonald. By the mid-'80s, many of the other contested McDonaldland residents — including Mayor McCheese, Officer Big Mac, and The Professor — began to disappear. 

Now, decades later, the enduring image of Grimace is that of a kind, shake-promoting sidekick — even if those evil origins have perhaps flavored recent social media shenanigans surrounding his birthday milkshake.