So 28 years ago this month, McDonald's put together a campaign that would dominate the fast-food giant's advertising strategy for years. "Mac Tonight," a ploy to redefine the restaurant as a place worthy of serving you not just breakfast and lunch, but dinner, too, starred an anthropomorphic crescent moon/Jay Leno lookalike who played a variety of instruments while singing a parody of Bobby Darin's signature "Mack the Knife," with repurposed lyrics like ...
When the clock strikes
Half-past 6, babe
Time to head for
It's a good time
For the great taste—dinner!
It's Mac Tonight
The campaign ran for years, reeling off dozens of spots (some promoting local appearances of "Moon Man") while even extending down to Happy Meal toys. Making Moon Man appeal to youngsters often made for downright creepy advertisements.
Today, this looks like a child-molesting moon mascot. But at the time, the song was right up the alley of Baby Boomer parents—for whom Darin's 1950's rendition remained an earworm. The successful campaign only came to an end when Darin's family sued McDonald's.
Their complaint about the parody rings a bit hollow, though, when considering what "Mack the Knife" is really about, and how bowdlerized Darin's recording (made from a 1954 translation by Marc Blitzstein) is from the original German.
"Die Moritat von Mackie Messer" is the opening number from Die Dreigroschenoper, known in English as The Threepenny Opera. Written by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht in 1928, it tells the story of notorious criminal Macheath, who is accused of, among other things, a brutal campaign of rape and murder. (His legend extends far further than Weill & Brecht; the character first appeared in a 1728 opera.)
Blitzstein's translation removed all the rape references and toned down the violent imagery added by Brecht, replacing the verses with some foreshadowing about the performance's conclusion; Bobby Darin exercised his own lyrical artistic license, too. But even Darin's rendition makes perfectly clear that "Mack the Knife" is a song about a murderer, and no matter how catchy the tune is, it's just a bit odd that McDonald's would co-opt it to sell cheeseburgers.
That's nothing, though, compared to what happened with the McDonald's Moon Man in the decades after the TV campaign faded ( a brief appearance in the 17th season of The Simpsons notwithstanding). Something Awful/4chan spinoff YTMND is responsible for dozens, if not hundreds, of the Internet's best-known memes. But much like 4chan's /b/ board, it's also home to some of the most repulsive, violent, racist content found on the English-language internet. No recurring YTMND character represents this more than the repurposed "Moon Man," liberated from his YouTube hell into a looping GIF that spews racist and homophobic hatred from atop a Big Mac. Yeah, it's weird. (This video is probably NSFW.)
YTMND Moon Man fads date back to 2007; most have been deleted and their creators banned, though you can still see a few of them. Nearly all of them feature the Moon Man GIF on repeat, accompanied by a robotic, text-to-speech voice repeating the letters "K-K-K."
According to the YTMND wiki, the Moon Man fad became so notorious that AT&T attempted to modify its online text-to-speech generator to prevent it from being exploited as a tool to put violent, hateful words in the mouth of a frightening old McDonald's mascot. AT&T appears to have been unsuccessful in this attempt, as new Moon Man sites continue to be created; here's one from just yesterday.
The Internet will do what the Internet does. But it's hard to find much sympathy for McDonald's, given the history of the song they used to sell cheeseburgers to children.
To contact the author of this post, write to email@example.com or find him on Twitter @bubbaprog.