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Can Ronald McDonald save the Golden Arches?

By Brian Sozzi/

McDonald's (MCD) is about to channel some nostalgia in a bid to light a flame under its flagging U.S. sales.

Who will be serving up that nostalgia? The smiley, always energetic, red-haired icon of the pre-cable television airwaves, Ronald McDonald the clown.

"We re-launched Ronald in April of this year," said McDonald's spokesperson Becca Hary via email. Pointing to a press release from April that highlighted a designer-inspired clothing makeover for Ronald McDonald, Hary added, "We stated that we have plans to use him in two U.S. commercials this year."

One commercial quietly aired in the U.S. on Oct. 30 noted Hary, suggesting another return of Ronald to TV, as the company calls him, could coincide with the approaching holiday season and the recent introduction of the human mascot on Instagram. It could also mean Ronald is getting his TV sea legs back before a more prominent return in 2015, aligning with McDonald's plans to revamp its marketing in the U.S.

Ronald McDonald's Instagram account launched five weeks ago with a short video of his white-faced self enjoying a beach vacation. The account, which describes Ronald as a "world traveler," "smile seeker" and "clown", has posted 33 times (including multiple selfies) and amassed 1,586 followers. Further, there have been a total of 71,748 posts on Instagram using the hashtag #RonaldMcDonald that McDonald's established as part of the icon's April re-launch. Most of the photos are of people overseas posing alongside a Ronald statue inside a restaurant or uploading portraits from the clown's marketing heydays in the '70s and '80s.

Ronald's "friends are popular on social media," remarked Hary.

While the budding social media celebrity status of Ronald McDonald is evident in the litany of Instagram posts from around the globe, it's undetermined if the clown that many babyboomers and millennials grew up watching on TV commercials and seeing plastered on Happy Meal boxes will allure a new generation of teens and 20-somethings currently obsessed with Chipotle (CMG) burritos and salad bowls. McDonald's could use what remaining star power Ronald has left, and potentially other former prominent brand ambassadors like Grimace, Mayor McCheese and Hamburglar, to drive interest in the company's affordable coffee, new lower-calorie menu options, customizable burgers, mobile payment, and remodeled restaurants.

McDonald's U.S. same-store sales have declined in four straight quarters, per Bloomberg data. In October, McDonald's U.S. reported a 1 percent same-store sales drop, following a 4.1 percent decline in September.

According to McDonald's, Ronald McDonald joined the burger and fry establishment in 1963, with an initial TV appearance in Washington, D.C. Two years later, Ronald made his first national TV appearance in a commercial that aired during the Macy's (M) Thanksgiving Day Parade. The clown was named the national spokesman for McDonald's in 1966, but had all but vanished from the airwaves in recent years amid outcries he promoted fattening food consumption amongst children.