Was McDonaldland plagiarized from the old “H. R. Pufnstuf” kids’ TV show?

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Dear Cecil: A few years ago you wrote about the murky origins of the characters in McDonald’s advertising — Mayor McCheese, Hamburglar, Grimace, and so on. Mostly you regurgitated a lot of puffery from the McDonald’s PR department and missed the real story. Check out the uncanny resemblance of the McDonaldland denizens to the characters in the old H.R. Pufnstuf children’s TV show. Can you say “copyright infringement”? Just trying to keep you honest, Chicago


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Son of a gun, I knew I was forgetting something. I should have mentioned the successful lawsuit by Sid and Marty Krofft against McDonald’s, charging that the company and its advertising agency had ripped off the McDonaldland characters from H.R. Pufnstuf, which the Kroffts had produced. Well, better late than never. Here’s the whole sordid tale.

The Krofft brothers are legendary (well, pretty well-known) TV producers. They had their biggest successes in kidvid in the late 60s and early 70s, with shows like The Bugaloos, Lidsville, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, and most prominently H.R. Pufnstuf, which aired between 1969 and 1974. H.R. Pufnstuf featured brightly colored sets with hyperkinetic actors (many of them dwarfs) in wild costumes playing such characters as Wilhelmina Witchiepoo, Cling and Clang, and of course H.R. Pufnstuf, a friendly dragon who was mayor of Living Island, where plants, animals, and objects could talk and wacky adventures took place.

By 1970 H.R. Pufnstuf was the top-rated Saturday morning TV show, and the Kroffts began getting calls from ad agencies hoping to get in on the action. One series of calls came from the ad agency Needham Harper & Steers, which was wooing McDonald’s. Needham figured a campaign featuring the popular H.R. Pufnstuf characters might be just the thing to land the business. In a letter dated August 31, 1970, Needham told the Kroffts that it was going ahead with a McDonaldland campaign based on the Kroffts’ work and that they could expect a fee for creative services. But a short time later Needham told the Kroffts the campaign had been canceled.

Those devious ad agency guys! In truth Needham had gotten the McDonald’s account and was proceeding with the campaign but apparently figured it could stiff the Kroffts out of their fee. “Former employees of the Kroffts were hired to design and construct the costumes and sets for McDonaldland,” a federal appeals court later wrote. “Needham also hired the same voice expert who supplied all the voices for the Pufnstuf characters to supply some of the voices for the McDonaldland characters.” Needham reps even visited the Kroffts’ LA headquarters seeking creative advice. But no cash was forthcoming.

After the first McDonaldland commercials began airing in January 1971, the Kroffts sued for copyright infringement. When the case went to trial in 1973, their lawyers showed the jury several H.R. Pufnstuf episodes and McDonaldland commercials and pointed out the obvious similarities. McDonald’s and Needham responded that the show and the commercials weren’t exactly the same. For example, Mayor McCheese and Pufnstuf were each the mayor of a fanciful land, but McCheese was a cheeseburger in pink formal wear while Pufnstuf was a dragon. Big difference!

The jury, and later the appeals court, didn’t buy it. “We do not believe that the ordinary reasonable person, let alone a child, viewing these works will even notice that Pufnstuf is wearing a cummerbund while Mayor McCheese is wearing a diplomat’s sash,” the appeals court wrote. The court held that the defendants had wrongfully appropriated the “total concept and feel” of H.R. Pufnstuf, anticipating the “look and feel” argument made by litigious computer software developers years later. The Kroffts were awarded a big chunk of dough.

McDonald’s had no comment on the whole mess. Discussing the case in his book Sid and Marty Krofft: A Critical Study of Saturday Morning Children’s Television, 1969-1993, Hal Erickson quotes Red Skelton: “Imitation isn’t the sincerest form of flattery — it’s plagiarism.”

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.