Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald’s, famously held the belief that brand loyalty could be established as early as the age of two. And anyone who doubts that Ray Kroc knew what he was talking about has clearly never been nagged for hours on end by a kid demanding you take them to McDonald’s. So, how did Mr. Kroc and his golden-arched empire get kids so obsessed with their otherwise-indistinguishable hamburgers? With a cast of fun and colorful characters who got children to associate play and fast food, of course.
That troupe, collectively known as the inhabitants of McDonaldland, were led by the iconic clown Ronald McDonald. And right next to him was his big purple pal Grimace, an amorphous blob obsessed with McDonald’s triple-thick milkshakes. But before he was an affable consumer of cholesterol, Grimace was a bit of a heel. His original incarnation was known as "The Evil Grimace," and roamed around McDonaldland hoarding milkshakes and other beverages. Here’s the history of his dark and dastardly deeds, as well as how he ultimately saw the light and shed his "evil" nickname.
Evil Grimace was a part of the original McDonaldland lineup
If you grew up in the ’70s, ’80s, or early ’90s, you most certainly remember the animated characters that made going to McDonald’s about so much more than just a burger and fries. Ronald McDonald was easily the most recognizable among them (according to Mental Floss he was once second in recognizability behind Santa Claus), but he also had a trippy entourage alongside him. It included a giant chicken, a cop with a hamburger for a head, a striped convict, and a four-armed purple blob named the Evil Grimace.
Collectively they were known as McDonaldland, a made-up universe populated by fast food mascots and kids hungry for milkshakes, and was the cornerstone of McDonalds’ advertising for decades. They were the brainchild of Needham, Harper & Steers, and in addition to filling Happy Meals and TV airtime, they were also featured in McDonald’s playplaces, where kids could crawl in and out of the characters to burn off some of that French fry energy. The campaign wasn’t without its hitches, though: It ran into plenty of legal trouble down the line. But more on that later.
Grimace originally terrified kids and was a ‘total failure’
Even a marketing juggernaut who can convince children prefab hamburgers are better than fresh ones makes its mistakes. And, according to a QSR Magazine column from former McDonald’s creative officer Roy Bergold, one of those mistakes was the four-armed Evil Grimace. "The original Grimace was scaly, mean-looking, had four arms, and had no charm whatsoever," he said, possibly realizing in retrospect such descriptions should have been their first hint Evil Grimace wasn’t the best idea. "He scared kids."
The original Evil Grimace was obsessed with stealing milkshakes from little kids. We might find this darkly funny as adults, but it might also lead a child to believe ordering one would just result in it being stolen by a four-armed purple blob. Business Insider dubbed Evil Grimace a "total failure." And ThinkTank made an astute point on the miscalculation in a video about bygone McDonaldland characters, saying at about the 3:45 mark, "They realized … in ads you don’t necessarily want people to be scared of being killed by a monster when they go to your place."
He was sort of like the Hamburglar for milkshakes
Evil Grimace’s original shtick was as a sort of dim-witted, bumbling monster who was hellbent on stealing milkshakes from unwitting children. You can see his antics in a vintage McDonald’s ad where it was a "gloomy day in McDonaldland" because Evil Grimace had stolen all the Coke and shakes. Thievery, however, was not exclusive to Evil Grimace, as he was joined in his fast food larceny by the Hamburglar, who, as the name might imply, was determined to steal hamburgers.
The dual villainy gave hero Ronald McDonald some foils, to be certain, but for whatever reason, the four-armed Evil Grimace didn’t go over nearly as well as his striped comrade in crime. The Hamburglar not only lasted the duration of the McDonaldland campaign, he was the lone character to be revised back in 2015, when a hipper, sexier, live-action version hit TV screens. The new millennial Hamburglar didn’t last long, however, as Entertainment Weekly pointed out he was just too good-looking to be believable as a criminal who steals hamburgers.
Evil Griamce also liked to steal Coke
First impressions really are everything. And the first impression we get in an ad of four-armed Evil Grimace was a scene of him standing in a dark cave, surrounded by McDonald’s cups, asking the camera, "Duhhh … where’s the Coke?" If this were a person, such an introduction would be cause to delete their number from your phone and avoid them in social situations at all costs. In McDonaldland, however, it’s simply cause to invent a fake beauty contest to lure said Coke-hoarding monster out of their cave for some superficial exposure, then take all the Coke back while they’re gone. Actually, this might work in real life too.
The point is that in addition to stealing milkshakes from little kids, Evil Grimace was apparently also a Coke fiend, robbing cups of soda and creating gloomy days in McDonaldland. So gloomy, in fact, the first scene of the aforementioned advertisement features a couple of kids sitting in a field of hamburgers with Ronald McDonald, lamenting first not the loss of cold, frosty milkshakes, but instead whining to Ronald about "no Coke."
Ronald McDonald duped Evil Grimace with disguises
Evil Grimace was not the intellect of the McDonaldland operation. So, in most of the ads in which he was featured, the Evil Grimace was duped by a giant clown who somehow "disguised" himself with a hat. In a campaign, for example, Ronald McDonald throws on a hat that says "mailman" and puts a bag of letters on his shoulder, posing as a mail carrier to deliver Grimace a fake letter inviting him to participate in a McDonaldland beauty contest. Federal crime, you say? Not in McDonaldland, where it’s just a crafty way to get your triple thick shakes and ice cold Coca-Cola back to McDonald’s.
Not one to learn from his mistakes, Evil Grimace is again bamboozled in an ad when Ronald spots him absconding with four arms full of Coke and milkshakes. The clown throws on a beret and pair of oversized sunglasses, grabs a fake movie camera, and follows Grimace to Filet-o-Fish lake. There, he convinces Grimace to pose for some shots, getting him to slowly back up before falling into the lake. Attempted murder, you say? Not in McDonaldland, where it’s justifiable if you’re rescuing milkshakes and fountain soda.
Evil Grimace could turn green and trick little kids
Though most of us remember Grimace as being purple, much like the Chicago River and light beer at your favorite neighborhood bar, he could also turn green for St. Patrick’s Day. This was, at least, the case for the lone St. Paddy’s that four-armed Evil Grimace was with us, when he starred in this shamrock-themed commercial. In it, a couple of concerned children notice, "The Grimace is turning green!" and ask the monster why his hands and feet appear to be severely discolored. Grimace, who looks a little like a scientific demonstration on the progressive effects of frostbite, tells the kids he often turns green this time of year, thanks to McDonald’s green Shamrock Shakes.
The little girl asks Grimace if she can have one, saying "I’ve never had a shamrock shake," to which Grimace says, "Sure!" For a brief moment, we think the four-armed villain will show some compassion for the kids who seemed so concerned for his health. But Grimace shows his true (figurative) colors, when instead of handing her a triple thick Shamrock Shake, he instead shakes her hand and says, "Shake!" then laughs maniacally.
He wasn’t really so much evil as just kinda dumb and mischievous
Despite the "Evil Grimace" moniker, the original four-armed version of Ronald’s purple pal wasn’t so much evil as he was just kinda dumb and hungry. Kinda like your dog who rips the Christmas roast off the counter while it’s defrosting, not meaning to ruin Christmas, just trying to find some lunch. For example, in the Movie Director ad, we hear Grimace repeatedly saying how thirsty he is, and this is ostensibly why he’s running off with four armloads of beverages. Evil Grimace is a big guy — with two extra arms — and probably needs more hydration than, say, a seven-year-old.
Similarly, when he’s spotted turning green from Shamrock Shakes, the poor dumb oaf doesn’t even know his body is changing color until the kids tell him. And perhaps he literally did think the little girl wanted to shake hands, as his brain was both frozen and addled with sugar. He’s not evil, just kind of too dumb to know better. And though that was never cited as a reason for his name change as far as we know, we can’t help but think McDonald’s ultimately figured out they got the "evil" part wrong.
Evil Grimace has a playscape at Playland that outlasted the character
Once upon a time, a playground at McDonald’s was as much a part of the Golden Arches experience as a hamburger and a Happy Meal toy. According to Eater, the McDonaldland playplace debuted in 1972 at the Illinois State Fair and expanded to McDonald’s locations nationwide with everything from Officer Big Mac climbing structures to Captain Crook spiral slides. The pieces were designed by Don Ament, who before working for McDonald’s was a set designer at Disney. By the early ’90s, the playgrounds branched off into an independent concept called Leaps and Bounds, an indoor play center where parents paid $4.95 to let their kids immerse themselves in McDonaldland.
Though there’s no evidence of Evil Grimace at Leaps and Bounds, he was part of the original lineup that debuted at the Illinois State Fair. According to an archived story from Northern Illinois University, the playscapes included the Evil Grimace Bounce and Bend, a ten-foot structure where five to ten children could hold onto the bars while the cage shook back and forth. A blog called Dinosaurs and Dracula offers a picture as well as a personal recollection that the attraction was still at some McDonald’s restaurants into the 1980s.
His action figure was softer than the other McDonaldland toys
All of the original McDonaldland toys were made by Remco, according to Mental Floss, and most featured posable limbs and changeable cloth outfits. Many also included accessories, like Officer Big Mac’s badge and Mayor McCheese’s mayoral sash. They also had levers in their backs that allowed the user to move the figurines’ heads in four directions.
Oh, but this wasn’t to be the case if you were big purple blob who stole people’s milkshakes. That kind of lifestyle lends itself more to being a beanbag than a fast food G.I. Joe, and so it was the Evil Grimace — and later, the not-so-evil-Grimace — that was designed more for cuddling than throwing at parents who wouldn’t take you to McDonald’s. The original toy had "innards similar to the polystyrene material found inside of a bean bag," according to Mental Floss, and was covered in a sort of purple fur to make him especially cuddly. Grimace wasn’t winning any action figure fights, to be sure, but was a lot nicer to sleep next to.
At least one person thinks those original dolls are worth a lot of money, too
If you’re looking for a proof of Evil Grimace beyond the old-timey TV ads, far and away the most ubiquitous piece of four-armed memorabilia are the old enamel pins, with a number of them available on eBay and Etsy for about $15. But if you want one of the aforementioned cuddly Evil Grimace dolls, that’s gonna cost you a little more. Though to our knowledge there hasn’t been an episode of Antiques Roadshow devoted to plush McDonaldland toys, the current asking price on eBay for a stuffed, four-armed Evil Grimace, still in the box, is $129.99. But, hey, free shipping!
That’s not to say that’s that the doll is worth, or even what someone would be willing to pay, but the doll is listed as "RARE" and a "Comic Con Exclusive." Either way, it would definitely be a conversation piece to have sitting on your living room sofa, and it’s way cooler than an enamel pin.
Evil Grimace lost his other two arms and the Evil name in 1972
Though there are no records of parents avoiding McDonald’s because of the imminent threat of a four-armed monster, McDonald’s ultimately decided to figuratively amputate two of Evil Grimace’s arms in 1972. Also removed was the "Evil" name, as he simply became known as "Grimace." His character maintained the dopey persona, still beginning each sentence with a slow-moving "duhhhhh" and an unhealthy obsession with milkshakes.
So Grimace went from foil to cartoon clown hanger-on. Instead of stealing milkshakes and cokes from children, he instead turned into Ronald’s best friend and got all the Coke and shakes he could by hanging around a guy who had them in abundance. It’s not a bad life lesson, and it’s certainly better than pursuing a life of crime. Also, we’d argue a two-armed purple blob is a lot more aesthetically pleasing than one with four.
He may have been changed more due to copyright infringement than his scary appearance
Though former McDonald’s creative officer Roy Bergold admitted that Evil Grimace was a mistake that was altered due to his lack of charisma and the fact that he scared little kids, that may not be all there is to the story. The McDonaldland characters were ultimately the subject of a major lawsuit, as the creators of the TV program H.R. Pufnstuf alleged McDonald’s stole many of their characters for the campaign. According the lawsuit, McDonald’s not only approached creators Sid and Marty Krofft about collaborating on a campaign — then immediately scrapped it — they also recruited former H.R. Pufnstuf employees to help design McDonaldland.
Among the disputed characters was Evil Grimace, who according to the Grimacefans blog was a little too close to a character named Seymour Spider for the Kroffts’ liking. Dropping a couple of arms would make him seem considerably less spider-like, so the reasoning makes sense. McDonald’s ultimately lost the lawsuit after six years of litigation, and the company was ordered to pay over $1 million in damages.
The two-armed Grimace was ultimately retired in 2003, along with the rest of McDonaldland
As part of the lawsuit, McDonald’s was also ordered to cease production of some of the McDonaldland characters, as reported by Mental Floss. But the newer, friendlier, less-spidery Grimace survived that initial purge and lived on in what was left of McDonaldland until 2003, when the entire campaign was scrapped. According to CBR.com, that was the year McDonald’s began its "I’m lovin’ it!" campaign and switched the company’s marketing more toward adults than children.
This marked a significant shift in our collective attitude toward marketing to children, as groups like Corporate Accountability International began pressuring McDonald’s to phase out its trademark clown, questioning the ethics of selling unhealthy food to kids. In 2016, in the wake of a series of "creepy clown" sightings, Ronald was put on hiatus by the Big M. Despite all that, you’ll still see Grimace (and Ronald) popping up here and there, like they did in this year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade or in a 2009 ad for Monsters vs. Aliens. Though the four-armed evil incarnation may be gone forever, the two-armed good Grimace may well be with us forever.