McDonald’s said this week it sold out half of its new Adult Happy Meals in just four days. But four decades ago, when the first Happy Meal debuted, the company didn’t quite get it.
“They were a bit reluctant. They didn’t immediately embrace it,” Bob Bernstein, an advertising executive who created the Happy Meal in the late 1970s, said in a video interview from his Kansas City office, which is adorned with Happy Meal memorabilia. Meal and original artwork. “It took a bit of convincing on our part.”
Bernstein, whose ad agency handled marketing for McDonald’s (MCD) in multiple cities, had worked with McDonald’s (MCD) for a decade before the Happy Meal launched.
He specialized in children’s marketing and had invented several promotional gifts that McDonald’s gave to children, such as the Happy Cup showing Ronald McDonald with a flying hamburger, the Sippy Dipper Straw shaped like McDonald’s golden arches, and puppets in pencil.
But McDonald’s was losing its grip on the kids and families market.
McDonald’s had changed its store design from red-and-white-tiled buildings to brick in the 1970s, which kids hated, and competitors like Burger Chef were winning over kids with gifts. Burger King had also started using its “King” persona to appeal to children.
McDonald’s therefore asked Bernstein and his team to develop a concept to appeal to families again.
“We were losing our kids’ approval,” he said. “We wanted to recover with the kids and the family and say we were child friendly.”
Bernstein watched his young son eat cereal every day and noticed that every morning he was holding the cereal box and going around it day after day. It was kind of a revelation, and he realized that “kids want something to do when they eat.”
Bernstein and his team therefore decided to create a children’s lunch box for McDonald’s, with the company’s golden arches as handles and puzzles, riddles, games and comics on the outside for children to engage in during that they ate. Bernstein and his team brought in illustrators from across the country to make the boxes stand out.
The meal’s name was an offshoot of a 1960s McDonald’s jingle, in which it was called the “happy place”. “It’s such a happy place / Hap, hap, hap, happy place”, let’s go.
In 1977, the Happy Meal, which included a full-size hamburger, fries, Keebler cookies, soda, and a surprise Cracker Jack toy, was released only at McDonald’s franchise stores in Kansas City, Denver, and Phoenix in as a promotional item. For some reason, company headquarters outside of Chicago were reluctant to roll out the Happy Meal nationwide.
“Companies just didn’t grab it immediately,” Bernstein said. “They wanted to see more tests. It was a bit unusual.
After more than a year of successful tests, the Happy Meal became national in 1979.
The $1.10 meal was circus cart themed and his first toys were a McDoodle stencil, spinning top, erasers and other goodies. » Your kids will love McDonald’s Happy Meal. It’s food and fun in a box,” said an ad that year.
Later that year, McDonald’s created a meal tied to the film’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” debut, the first of many Happy Meal promotional ties to movies. A TV spot featured a Klingon telling parents to take their kids to McDonald’s for a Star Trek meal.
Yet the Happy Meal was not embraced by many franchise owners, who feared it would disrupt their operations.
“It wasn’t a very popular concept,” said Colleen Fahey, creative director of advertising agency Frankel, which worked with McDonald’s to transform the Happy Meal from a promotional item into a permanent menu item in restaurants. 1980s.
“The boxes were complicated. They had to find a place to put the toys,” she said. “They thought it was too complex for their operations.”
But when sales took off, McDonald’s and its franchisees warmed to the Happy Meal, thanks in large part to the popularity of toys in the meal and the crucial addition of Chicken McNuggets in 1984.
Bernstein was not involved in McDonald’s Happy Meal strategy after it went national. (He and his agency continued to work with McDonald’s until earlier this year.)
Although his take on the Happy Meal focused on out-of-the-box designs, toys became his main draw. McDonald’s became one of the largest toy distributors in the country, and the toys became collectibles. Vintage Happy Meal toys are now selling for up to $50 on eBay.
McDonald’s then began working with Hollywood studios and major toymakers such as Mattel (MAT) to create limited-time meals around hot toys, such as Muppet Babies in 1987 and Hot Wheels a year later.
In the 1990s, Beanie Babies, Transformers and Power Rangers Happy Meal toys were massive hits for McDonald’s. And in 1996, the company entered into a 10-year deal with Disney (DIS) to create toys inspired by their movies.
The meal has been integral to McDonald’s success with families, said Jonathan Maze, editor of Restaurant Business Magazine.
“McDonald’s place in the restaurant industry is second to none and in large part because it has the family market,” he said. “Burger King and Wendy’s have always struggled to attract families like McDonald’s did.”
If kids want a Happy Meal and the accompanying toy, they’ll ask their parents to take them to McDonald’s, where the chain can sell food to the whole family, he said.
But the nutritional value of a Happy Meal and McDonald’s marketing tactics to children have been criticized from almost the start for contributing to childhood obesity.
In the mid-2000s pressure grew on McDonald’s to make the meal healthier and eliminate toys as they were essentially a sales gimmick to reach children.
In 2011, San Francisco passed an ordinance, still in effect, that prohibited McDonald’s and fast-food chains from including free toys or other inducements in children’s meals that did not meet minimum nutritional standards. (Customers can purchase a toy for an additional 10 cents, and McDonald’s donates the proceeds to charity.)
Cities and states have also started setting nutritional standards for children’s meals. The first kids’ meals policy was enacted in 2010 in Santa Clara County, California, and nearly two dozen other states and localities have enacted kids’ meals policies, according to the Center for Science in the Public. Interest, a consumer advocacy group.
In response, McDonald’s made a series of changes to the Happy Meal.
McDonald’s cut the portion of fries by more than half, added apples to the meal and offered reduced-sugar low-fat chocolate milk. He also removed sodas in 2013, and in 2018 he announced that cheeseburgers would not be part of the meal, although parents can still request them.
And it reduced the calorie count of the meal. Today, a Happy Meal contains 475 calories, about 20% less than five years ago.
McDonald’s told CNN Business that it is “committed to marketing responsibly and helping the industry self-regulate when it comes to advertising to children”, and that it only advertises Happy Meal packages that meet established nutritional criteria by industry groups.
McDonald’s has been a leader among fast-food chains in improving kids’ meals, said Lindsay Moyer, a nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest who studies fast-food meals for kids.
She praises McDonald’s for removing sodas, reducing fries and adding fruit. But these steps are “piecemeal” and the Happy Meal remains unhealthy overall according to her. “There aren’t a lot of nutrient-dense foods.”
She noted that McDonald’s had said it would look to add grains or vegetables to the meal, but there were no changes.
And what goes into a Happy Meal – and what’s left of it – is more than just food. “It’s important for norms and habits. It’s telling kids, “This is what a meal is,” she said. Hanging toys to entice children to eat burgers and fries also “makes it harder for parents to promote healthy eating.”