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The campaign was created locally for the west coast of the USA, and to increase the after-4pm dinner business. The first 4 spots were shot in late 1986, with the first airings in early 1987. With the success of these spots on the west coast, McDonald's spread the campaign nationwide in the U.S. in the summer of 1987, and shot 2 more spots to add to that run. With more success nationwide, more and more spots were shot, and the campaign went throughout all McDonald's territories worldwide by 1988.
This initial blast lasted over 3 years through spring of 1990, with a re-visit to the character, including newly produced commercials in 1996 and 1997. He had a crescent moon for a head, wore a suit and sunglasses, and was depicted as being a jazzy lounge singer. The name was a play on words of the song "Mack the Knife", made popular in America by Bobby Darin. The song that played over the advertisements, called "It's Mac Tonight", was also a variant on that song, but with McDonald's-themed lyrics, such as those featured in the original 1986 commercial:
- "When the stars come out to play, babe
- A twinkling show, ooh -- dinner! -- out of sight
- Yeah, the night time is golden light time -- big dipper!
- At McDonald's (showtime), it's Mac Tonight!"
Other lyrics include this set from a 1987 commercial:
- "When the clock strikes half past 6, babe
- Time to head for golden lights
- It's a good time for the great taste -- dinner!
- At McDonald's, it's Mac Tonight
- Come on, make it Mac Tonight!"
Mac Tonight is the only character in the McDonald's world to not appear in the McDonaldland advertisements.
It was known that Bobby Darin's son, Dodd Mitchell Darin, was not impressed with the song, due to the fact that he claimed that the song infringed upon his father's trademark, and that this was done without prior permission, and filed a lawsuit as well as an injunction for the song to be removed from both TV and radio ads.
Mac Tonight no longer appears in commercials in the United States, as a result of the injunction, but pictures of him can still be seen in some McDonald's restaurants, and on some smaller signage by some restaurants' drive-through entrances/exits.
The campaign included 29 commercials, initially airing from 1986 to 1988. Doug Jones played Mac Tonight in 27 of them. A number of 3-inch hard plastic Mac Tonight toys were available in Happy Meals. Mac Tonight also was a cameo in a Big Mac commercial in 1988, as a costumed greeter when the woman entered McDonald's.
There is an ironic twist in McDonald's reference to the song. Mack the Knife originated in The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, which is told from a Marxist world-view point. Brecht was an ardent Marxist, having also written the German labor anthem Das Einheitsfrontlied. Weill, though not as committed to the movement as Brecht, was still a supporter of socialism, who most likely would have been amused at the contrariness.
In 2007, Mac Tonight was given a CGI makeover and starred in a new commercial in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, South Africa and The Philippines. He is no longer seen flying over Earth or a city with a piano, but instead he dances on top of a McDonald's store singing and playing a saxophone. He also has a different, slightly gruffer voice, and new lyrics. All references to "Mack the Knife" have been removed, partially because Bobby Darin's estate didn't approve of the re-working.
- "All day and all night, step out for a bite.
- Oh for treats that delight, --24 Hours a day!
- Come down to Mac Tonight, hey!
- [Plays a Short Piece on a Saxophone]
- 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!"
Recently, Taiwan has begun to run Mac Tonight ads with Mac speaking Mandarin Chinese. Similarly, Hong Kong has a new commercial featuring the character, in which Mac Tonight is voiced by singer Eason Chan, in order to promote local branches' new 24-hour operation schedule.
- Talk-show host (and onetime McDonald's employee) Jay Leno often refers to his resemblance to Mac Tonight, and in promos for his show during the credits of NBC programming his face is depicted as a moon.
- Mac Tonight is also a meme on the website YTMND. The meme, called "Moon Man," features a Mac Tonight animation dubbed with AT&T's text-to-speech program voices. The meme's contents are usually violent, sexist and racist, and have prompted AT&T to tighten restrictions on its demo content.
- The Simpsons episode "Kiss Kiss Bang Bangalore" featured Mac Tonight. Bart mentions that the thermostat is "just painted on". In response, Homer says, ""Oh my God, you're right. I better call the guy." and pretends to dial a phone also painted on the wall. He then reaches into the kitchen and, retrieving a cardboard cutout of Mac Tonight, says, "Oh, here he is." Lisa remarks, "Dad, that's Mac Tonight." Homer replies, "Yeah, well while I'm gone, you'll do what he says."
- Steam Powered Giraffe liberally referenced Mac Tonight in their cover of "Mack the Knife," only seen performed in street venues around California. The band attempts to sing Bobby Darin's hit but frequently revert to singing the McDonald's jingle, ending with a version of "Old MacDonald" sung to the tune of "Mack the Knife."
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- Information on Mac Tonight at Advertisingiconmuseum.com
- Mac Tonight commercial (youtube.com)
- Doug Jones as 'Mac Tonight'
- 2007 Mac Tonight Commercial from Singapore
- 2007 Mac Tonight Commercial from Hong Kong