McDonald’s said this week that it has sold half of its new sales Happy Meals for adults In just four days. But four decades ago, when the first Happy Meal came out, the company didn’t quite get it.
They were a little hesitant. They didn’t immediately embrace it, Bob Bernstein, the 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 and original art. “It required some persuasion on our part.”
He specialized in children’s marketing and has invented many of the McDonald’s promotional gifts for children, such as the Happy Cup featuring Ronald McDonald with a flying hamburger, sippy straws in the form of McDonald’s golden bows and pencil toys.
But McDonald’s was losing its grip on the market for children and families.
McDonald’s changed the design of its store from red and white tiled buildings to brick ones in the 1970s, which kids hated, and competitors like Burger Chef were winning kids over with gifts. Burger King has also started using its “King” stamp to attract kids.
So McDonald’s asked Bernstein and his team to develop a concept to lure families back in.
“We were losing our support for the kids,” he said. “We wanted to re-establish ourselves 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 would grab the cereal box and pierce it on all sides, day in and day out. It was something of a revelation, realizing that “kids want something to do when they eat.”
So Bernstein and his team decided to create a kids meal box for McDonald’s, with the company’s golden arches like handles, puzzles, puzzles, games and comics outside for kids to interact with as they eat. Bernstein and his team hired painters from all over the country to highlight the boxes.
The name of the meal was an offshoot of A 1960s McDonald’s Jingle, It called itself “The Happy Place”. “It’s a happy place/Hap, hop, hop, happy place,” he went.
In 1977, the Happy Meal, which came with a regular sized burger, french fries, keepler cookies, soda, and a surprise cracker jack, was launched only in McDonald’s stores in Kansas City, Denver and Phoenix as a promotional item. For some reason, the company’s offices outside of Chicago have been reluctant to roll out the Happy Meal nationwide.
“Companies didn’t take over immediately,” Bernstein said. “They wanted to see more testing. This was a little unusual.”
After more than a year of successful testing, the Happy Meal became national in 1979.
The $1.10 meal was shaped like a circus cart and her first toys were a McDoodle stencil, roller cap, eraser and other products. Your kids will love McDonald’s Happy Meal. A . said commercial that year.
Later that year, McDonald’s created a meal tied to the debut of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” the first of many movie promotions. Television spot Klingon appeared telling parents to bring their kids to McDonald’s for a Star Trek meal.
However, the Happy Meal was not embraced by many franchisees, who were concerned that it would disrupt their operations.
“It wasn’t a very popular concept,” said Colin Fahey, creative director at advertising agency Frankel, which worked with McDonald’s to transform the Happy Meal from a promotional item into a permanent menu item during the 1980s.
“The boxes were complicated. They had to find a place to store the toys,” she said. “They thought their operations were too complicated.”
But as sales took off, McDonald’s and its franchises warmed up to the Happy Meal, thanks in large part to the meal’s popularity of toys and the crucial addition of chicken McNuggets in 1984.
Bernstein did not get involved in McDonald’s Happy Meals strategy after it became patriotic. (He and his agency continued to work with McDonald’s until earlier this year.)
Although his version of the Happy Meal centered on out-of-the-box designs, gaming became its main attraction. McDonald’s turned into one of the largest toy distributors in the country and toys became collectors’ items. Vintage Happy Meal toys now sell for up to $50 on eBay.
Then McDonald’s began working with Hollywood studios and major toy manufacturers such as Mattel
(mat) To prepare time-limited meals around hot games, like Muppet Babies in 1987 and Hot Wheels a year later.
In the ’90s, the games Beanie Babies, Transformers, and Power Rangers Happy Meal were huge hits for McDonald’s. And in 1996, the company struck a 10-year deal with Disney
(dis) To make games inspired by their movies.
Jonathan Mays, editor in chief at Restaurant Business Magazine, said the meal was integral to McDonald’s success with families.
“McDonald’s place in the restaurant industry is second to none and largely because it has a family market,” he said. “Burger King and Wendy’s have always struggled to attract families as much as McDonald’s has.”
He said that if the children wanted the Happy Meal and the accompanying toy, they would urge their parents to take them to McDonald’s, where the chain could sell food to the whole family.
But the nutritional value of the Happy Meal and McDonald’s marketing tactics to children have been criticized almost from the outset for their contribution to childhood obesity.
In the mid-2000s, pressure on McDonald’s to make the meal healthier and eliminate toys swelled because they were essentially a selling vehicle to reach children.
In 2011, San Francisco passed with distinction decree, which is still in effect, prohibits McDonald’s and fast food chains from including free games or other incentives with children’s meals that do 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 are also beginning to set nutrition standards for children’s meals. The first baby meal policy was passed in 2010 in Santa Clara County, California, and nearly two dozen other states and localities have adopted baby meal 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 reduced the portion of French fries by more than half, added apples to the meal and introduced low-fat, low-sugar chocolate milk. It also removed soda in 2013 and announced in 2018 Cheeseburgers will not be part of the mealalthough parents can still request it.
It reduced the number of calories in the meal. Today, there are 475 calories in a Happy Meal, down about 20% from five years ago.
McDonald’s told CNN Business It is “committed to marketing responsibly and helping to lead the industry for self-regulation regarding advertising to children,” and that it only advertises Happy Meal packages that meet nutritional standards set by industry groups.
Lindsey Muir, a nutrition specialist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest who researches fast food meals for children, said McDonald’s has been a leader among fast food chains in improving children’s meals.
She praises McDonald’s for removing soda, cutting back on potatoes, and adding fruit. But she said those steps are “fragmented” and the happy meal in general is still unhealthy. “There aren’t many foods that are rich in nutrients.”
She noted that McDonald’s said it would look to add grains or vegetables to the meal, but there has been no change.
What’s included in a Happy Meal—and what’s left—is more than just food. “It’s important for norms and habits. She tells the kids this is the meal. And the dangling toys that get kids to eat burgers and fries “make it hard for parents to promote healthy eating.”
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