Ronald McDonald is approaching middle age, which might explain his sudden conversion to a more healthy lifestyle. New ads for McDonald’s restaurants depict an athletic Ronald McDonald who could run rings around the old baggysuited mascot — who made his TV debut in 1963.
A global TV commercial debuting today shows the famous clown bike riding, snowboarding and playing basketball with NBA superstar Yao Ming, appealing to kids to get off the couch and be active.
In a not-so-subtle reminder that it’s not just about burgers and fries, McDonald’s also shows him juggling vegetables with his friends and dodging strawberries as he snowboards down a yogurt mountain.
Ronald McDonald’s makeover comes at a time when the fast-food industry seems to be struggling with an identity crisis.
Under increasing pressure from child-advocacy groups and the federal government to offer healthier fare, the industry seems to be taking as many steps back as it is forward.
Burger King recently introduced its "enormous omelet sandwich," with 730 calories and 47 grams of fat. Carl’s Jr., meanwhile, seems to be king of the mixed signal with its risque ad campaign featuring a rail-thin Paris Hilton playing temptress to its "Spicy BBQ Six Dollar Burger" (1,030 calories, 61 grams of fat) in a revealing swim suit.
Ronald’s clothing has changed, too. The trademark yellow jumpsuit remains but has a more form-fitting look.
The clown’s wardrobe also includes a warm-up suit, basketball and soccer outfits and a tuxedo.
Despite his leaner, more buff appearance, Ronald wasn’t exactly turning heads at the McDonald’s on Southern Avenue and Country Club Drive in Mesa.
"I think he’s kind of goofy,’’ said Marisa Doran of Tempe. "But then again, I’m kind of afraid of clowns to begin with.’’
"I can’t see that it makes much of a difference,’’ said Bill Bradshaw of Mesa.
"I liked the old Ronald better,’’ said Leon Muskowitz of Tempe, grabbing his belly with both hands. "Look at me. I even look like the old Ronald.’’
Stung by complaints that fast food isn’t nutritious and can contribute to obesity, McDonald’s added salads and fruit options to its menu in the past two years and launched a campaign to educate consumers about balanced, active lifestyles — which don’t preclude occasionally eating fast food.
Industry experts are uncertain the advertising makeover will help.
But the idea of going to a fast-food restaurant with health in mind did not resonate with all the patrons at the Mesa McDonald’s.
"I probably eat from the healthy part of the menu two out of four times,’’ Muskowitz said. "Really, it’s not about what’s healthy. It’s about what I’m in the mood for.’’
"As far as calories go, you’re just as well off eating a cheeseburger as some of their salads,’’ Bradshaw said.
Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald’s said the new commercial is only the beginning.
Later this year, Ronald hits the road for ‘‘Go Active with Ronald McDonald’’ interactive community shows.
McDonald’s has used the clown previously to teach children about such things as fastening seat belts and the importance of wearing bicycle helmets.
On that front, Doran sees the wisdom of the new campaign.
"It’s probably a good idea for kids,’’ she said. "Most of them just sit around playing video games all day. Maybe a more active Ronald McDonald will give them something to think about.’’
As for the ad campaign itself, Mike Vielma of Mesa isn’t convinced it will be a hit.
"I’ll take the Paris Hilton ad,’’ he said.