Mark J. Price
A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its big, floppy clown shoes.
In the late 1970s, McDonald’s officials faced a public-relations nightmare over a silly rumor that was too ludicrous to be believed. Yet, many customers bought it.
According to the outrageous gossip, Ronald McDonald was in league with the devil.
Officials chuckled when the first letter arrived at corporate headquarters in Illinois. An Ohio woman wanted to know if it was true that company owner Ray Kroc donated 20 percent of the fast-food chain’s profits to the Church of Satan in California.
Another letter arrived asking a similar question.
Mail carriers delivered bags of envelopes with postmarks from across the country.
Suddenly, officials weren’t laughing anymore. Although they didn’t want to dignify the rumor with a response, the issue became too hot to ignore. Restaurant sales were falling.
“We look ridiculous trying to refute something that is ridiculous,” McDonald’s spokeswoman Stephanie Skurdy told the media in October 1978. “We don’t know where it’s coming from. It’s one of those ugly rumors that just persist, regardless.”
The company sifted through stacks of correspondence in an effort to determine the origin of the rumor. The zigzag trail led them to Akron.
Ronald McDonald had faced many nemeses in his day, including the Hamburglar, Grimace and the French Fry Goblins, but none was as troublesome as the church lady.
The Rev. John McFarland, pastor of Kenmore Church of God, explained to the McDonald’s communications department that a former parishioner had told him that she saw Kroc being interviewed on The Phil Donahue Show.
“I don’t recall whether it was a question from the audience or someone who called in,” the woman told the pastor.
“The McDonald’s president said he supported several charities and Satan’s church was one of them.”
McFarland thought the revelation was deeply disturbing, so he shared it with his congregation in the church newsletter, Moments of Sunshine.
“It was brought to my attention a few days ago that the president of McDonald’s Inc., a multimillion dollar enterprise, recently appeared on The Phil Donahue Show, a nationwide syndicated TV program,” he wrote.
“Every time you and I have eaten at McDonald’s, we have unknowingly been financially supporting the worship of Satan and the promotion of his cause. Just the thought of it makes me feel sick inside. I don’t think I can ever eat at another McDonald’s under those conditions.”
It was true that Kroc had appeared on Donahue’s talk show. The program originally aired in May 1977 and was repeated in June 1978.
However, there was no mention of Satan or any of his minions, according to the official transcript of the program.
After being published in Akron, the devilish rumor spread from church to church. Some of the details changed in the telling.
For example, the amount of McDonald’s alleged satanic tithing varied from 10 percent to 50 percent.
Some accounts had Kroc making the startling admission with Mike Wallace on CBS’ 60 Minutes or Johnny Carson on NBC’s Tonight show.
“It’s scary how a totally false rumor can spread,” Donahue told the Associated Press in 1978. “We know that pastors have been handing out church bulletins saying Ray Kroc said on the Donahue show that he supports devil worshippers.
“That is totally false and irresponsible. Kroc made absolutely no reference to the devil during the interview. But when a pastor hands things out, it has tremendous credibility.”
Kroc dismissed the rumor as best as he could.
“I’m a God-fearing, God-loving man,” he explained.
Confronted with the facts, McFarland published a retraction and an apology to McDonald’s in his next issue of Moments of Sunshine. Overall, he found the incident to be “really embarrassing.”
As for the parishioner who spread the false information, he said: “She evidently wanted to hear it so bad, she just heard what she wanted.”
McDonald’s considered an advertising campaign to clear its name, but decided that doing so would only bring more attention to the allegation.
Instead, the company launched a strategic initiative to silence the whispers. Executives appeared before church groups across the country with sworn statements from TV producers who said Kroc never said anything about Satan on any program.
The McDonald’s rumor gradually died down.
Unfortunately, it spread to other companies such as Procter & Gamble and Liz Claiborne, which faced threats of consumer boycotts following years of false claims about satanic charity.
Maybe it all could have been avoided if an Akron church newsletter had quoted a Bible verse such as 1 Timothy 5:13:
“And withal they learn to be idle, wandering about from house to house; and not only idle, but tattlers also and busybodies, speaking things which they ought not.”
Beacon Journal copy editor Mark J. Price is the author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or email@example.com.