McDonald’s vs. H. R. Pufnstuf

The creators of the cult children’s TV show H. R. Pufnstuf once sued McDonald’s for plagiarism – and won big.

Officer Big Mac playground equipment
Jonathan McIntosh, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The other day my friend Jamie shared one of the original McDonald’s restaurant TV advertisements. It is… horrifying:

Beginning in the 1970s, McDonalds had a whole cast of characters for their advertising campaigns. These included Hamburglar and Captain Crook, who both stole food; Grimace the purple ghost, who originally stole food but then switched sides; Officer Big Mac, who chased the thieves; Mayor McCheese, who rather benignly bumbled around; and Ronald McDonald himself. You can watch the whole series of them, if you have a free half hour:

H. R. Pufnstuf was a one-season TV show first released in 1969. Its eighteen episodes have amassed a significant cult following for its surreal, almost hallucinatory qualities (and, possibly, raft of veiled drug references). The titular hero of the show was H. R. Pufnstuf, an anthropoid dragon mayor with a giant head:

When the McDonald’s commercials came out, the creators of H. R. Pufnstuf saw the obvious parallels between Mayor MacCheese and their own character – and indeed the whole concept of “McDonaldland” – and sued the restaurant company. In the trial, it came out that the similarity was no coincidence. The advertising company had originally invited the Pufnstuf creators, Sid and Marty Crofft, to collaborate on the commercials. At the last moment, the advertising company backed out and poached the TV show’s creative talent for themselves. McDonald’s lost the lawsuit and were instructed to pay US$50,000 in damages.

McDonald’s weren’t happy with the verdict, and neither were the Croffts. Both appealed the verdict, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals once again found in favour of the TV show… and they upped the damages to a million dollars. McDonald’s had to cut the commercials and retire the plagiarised characters.

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