McDonald’s Happy Meal turns 40

Christopher Borrelli
Chicago Tribune
Ad exec Bob Bernstein holds one of the original Happy Meals he designed for McDonald’s 40 years ago.

Summer of 2019 is a summer of monumental anniversaries, reminders that we were ambitious once (the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing), and not always as cynical as we’ve become (the 50th anniversary of Woodstock).

But how do we think about the 40th anniversary of the McDonald’s Happy Meal?

Monumental? Game-changing? Cynical?

All of the above?

The object itself is ephemeral. Just cardboard and plastic and some loose french fries. There will be no CNN documentaries or coffee-table books that explore the meaning of the Happy Meal. And yet, possibly, the Happy Meal has played a larger part in your everyday life than the space race, a music festival in upstate New York or the decline of Soviet communism.

A mom eats lunch with her children outside of the McDonald's at Navy Pier in Chicago on July 7, 2010. (William DeShazer/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

The past decade has seen McDonald’s introduce leaner versions, with apple slices and fewer fries per box; according to the company, more than 50% of Happy Meal customers in the United States now request milk, juice or water instead of a soft drink. There’s also a collectors market for Happy Meal toys, reminding us of the value of nostalgia. Meanwhile, tucked inside that nostalgia, we also see a cultural artifact that, for many children — especially Gen Xers — offered a first bit of autonomy, their own food.

In the late 1970s, it helped to cement the parameters of what was permissible when fast-food restaurants marketed to children. Later, it became Exhibit A for nutritionists eager to identify the causes of childhood obesity; indeed, the healthier Happy Meals of today are a response (several decades late) to the criticisms of the Happy Meal from the early 1980s. You might even say the Happy Meal — along with play dates, the end of free-range children and instructions for Legos — was one more small step to formatting childhood.

Turning children into regulars at McDonald’s was the whole point. Joe Johnston, a Tulsa author and artist, was a Cleveland adman in the early 1970s. “There was a sense (among McDonald’s franchise owners) that kids didn’t want to come to McDonald’s. There was a feeling McDonald’s was losing its connection to kids. There was no place to sit. Families took food to their cars. Kids were like, ‘This sucks, I want crayons.’ No one at McDonald’s was addressing it.”

He said the company gave him $700 to research ways to entice young families and his agency came up with a McDonald’s “Fun Meal.” It was essentially a sack with puzzles and activities on the packaging. No toys. “But toys, we learned, were key.”

During the summer of 1979, McDonald’s premiered the Happy Meal nationally. The first boxes were circus wagons. The first toys were tops, stencils, wallets, puzzles and erasers. And initially, meals included a hamburger or cheeseburger, fries, a soft drink and cookies.

Kids dive into Happy Meals in 2007. Turning children into regulars at McDonald’s was the whole point of the boxed food order with prizes.

Controversies concerning the Happy Meal — food fights, frankly — were apparent from the start. Just as the Happy Meal premiered nationally, Burger Chef sued McDonald’s for ripping off its Fun Meals; later, McDonald’s sued Burger King for ripping off Happy Meals to create Big Kids Meals. Still, the majority of controversies centered on nutritional value. In 2010, a California class-action lawsuit claimed McDonald’s used toys to unfairly entice children into eating unhealthy foods (the lawsuit was later dismissed); in 2002, New York teenagers sued McDonald’s, claiming Happy Meals contributed to their obesity.

At first the toys were underwhelming plastic shrugs.

But as McDonald’s partnered with companies like Disney and Mattel, the quality of the toys improved, and as the ads warned with any given promotion, kids had a “limited time” to collect ’em all. By the 30th anniversary of the Happy Meal in 2009, fast food chains told the FTC that they were spending $341 million on the toys in its kids meals, which was more than half the total they spent marketing to children.

And so, by the early 1990s, there were so many Happy Meal toys, it fueled a McDonald’s Collectors Club, founded outside Toledo by Linda Gegorski.

“For 20 years we held conventions,” she said, “and people came with toys McDonald’s only distributed regionally, which meant that you had rarities.” A collectors market grew. Collectors became friends with toy designers, traded Happy Meal prototypes.

“But the boxes were worth more than the toys,” said Mike Fountaine, a retired McDonald’s franchise owner in Pennsylvania who amassed a 75,000-piece collection, including “90 percent” of all Happy Meals. “The boxes ended up in the trash, so boxes became rarer.”

Still, that flood of new toys — often mass-produced in millions, distributed globally — would help eventually slow the market.