The Crazy History Of The Happy Meal

the happy meal
Picture: McDonald’s

The Happy Meal is a form of kids meal that was created in 1979 and became a big part of fast food in the 1980s. It was made up of three items and included a toy. The packaging and toy in the Happy Meal would soon become a marketing tie-in with TV and movies.

Are there any kids who grew up in the ‘80s that haven’t had a happy meal? It was a pretty simple process when you were a kid screaming for food. You’d get a hamburger, or chicken nuggets, fries, and a drink. And there was a toy in there.

The toys started out quite simple and then became huge collections that would take forever to get. McDonald’s then realized they could start some great marketing tie-ins with whatever movie was going to be a big hit with kids that year. Sometimes that would be a mistake though as we’ll get to later.

So today is all about the history of the Happy Meal. It’s a crazy story that actually has some noble beginnings but grew into another fast food juggernaut here to take over all our lives.

You can go the podcast route, or keep reading for the whole story!

The History Of The Happy Meal

The crazy thing I learned in researching all this is that the Happy Meal has roots in a desire to help mothers and not directly created by some corporate stooge.

The story starts in the mid-70s with a woman named Yolanda Fernandez De Cofino. She lived in Guatemala and her and her husband operated several McDonalds there. Yolanda was very aware of the number of young mothers that she saw coming into her restaurants and she knew the challenges they faced with raising young kids.

Noticing how difficult it could be for a mother to feed screaming kids she came up with the “Menu Ronald” or the Ronald Menu. This was a meal that offered a hamburger, fries and a small sundae as a way for these mothers to more effectively feed their children.

Somehow, and I’m really not sure how, the idea was eventually brought to the attention of McDonald’s management in Chicago.

How Cereal Influenced the Modern Happy Meal

Eventually, the concept of the happy meal was turned over to a guy named Bob Bernstein. Bernstein developed this concept into the Happy Meal we know now.

Berstein was a consultant for McDonald’s and would regularly meet with owners of McDonald’s. They would go over all things related to customer experience but the one big one that would come up from all these clients was how they could create a better experience for families with kids.

Up until the Happy Meal, if you watched kids in a restaurant, whether it be fast food or a regular one, kids would often pick at their parent’s meals. Kids menus, in general, were not a big thing yet and it’s hard to think of any form of food service that doesn’t cater to kids picky requests now.

So this was 1977 and the idea passed on from Guatemala was seeming like a good idea. Why couldn’t you just package a kid’s specific meal? This was McDonald’s though and it wasn’t as simple as just throwing some food together. You had to think about branding and the McDonalds experience.

Bernstein made note of when he ate breakfast with his son that his son would spend the whole meal reading the back of the cereal box, like most of us, did. For a kid growing up, this was basically your daily newspaper. Berstein wanted to take this concept and bring it into kids meals.

The idea Yolanda had was great but the package was the key.

Developing The Happy Meal Packaging

Berstein would call in his creative team to start working on mockups for the kid’s meal packaging. His team would use some paperboard boxes and had the idea to form them similar to a lunch pail. This would look familiar to kids and they also had the smart idea that they could turn the handles into the golden arches to carry it.

They had a lot of real estate on this box to cover with kid-friendly content. They called in some nationally known children’s illustrators and told them they had a blank slate to create whatever they wanted on the box’s sides. They could use any ideas they wanted including things jokes, art, games, comic strips and anything that would be similar to that cereal box experience.

The comic strips could be cartoonish or fantasy but anything that would appeal to a kid. Each box had to have 8 different items on the tops and sides to keep kids interested.

The food contents stayed simple and would include a burger, small fries, and instead of small sundae a package of cookies which were seen to be a less messy option. The meal would also come with a small drink and Bernstein would call it the “Happy Meal”

Launching The Happy Meal

They wasted no time in getting the Happy Meal into our grubby little hands as McDonald’s was pretty sure they had developed a good idea. They started to roll out commercials and radio ads for the Happy Meal in October 1977. They started with a test market in Kansas City to fine tune everything with the marketing.

They then slowly introduced it into other markets and then had a full nationwide rollout that happened at the end of 1979 to get this baby all ready for the 80s.

The first Happy Meal was a circus-wagon-themed and contained one of six different toys. Those first six were:

  • A “McDoodler” stencil
  • A “McWrist” wallet
  • An ID bracelet
  • A puzzle lock
  • Spinning top
  • McDonald land character eraser

The Evolution Of The Happy Meal Toys

Giving away a toy with food was clearly not McDonald’s idea but they packaged it up nicely. Before the Happy Meal toy, they had the “treat of the week”. The toy would change weekly but with the Happy Meal, it was a surprise to find out what you would get…

I think this is part of the big appeal with the Happy Meal. Each box you get is different and that appeals to kids big time. I think its also related to the big time success of things like the Cabbage Patch Kid as they were so many unique ones that kids would feel special with what they were getting. It wouldn’t be the exact same as every other kid out there.

The toys started off simple and cheap but have become much more complex over time. McDonald’s also didn’t wait in having a tie-in promotion. In 1979, almost right when the Happy Meal came out, they released the Star Trek Meal.

This was to promote Star Trek: The Motion Picture in December 1979. The packaging used for the Star Trek Meal was made up of various images from the movie and contained some games too. There was also a comic strip adaptation of the movie and they also realized an ingenious device early on: They would introduce a set of toys that you would need to collect all of to complete the set. This way kids would be wanting to come back to get more Happy Meals to get that missing toy, nerds, too.

Connecting With Disney

Probably the biggest advancement of the Happy Meal was in 1987 when McDonald’s first introduced a McDonalds/Disney Happy Meal. This was a perfect storm of two huge enterprises coming together over deep fried food. Disney has thrown pretty much every cartoon entity at the Happy Meal including:

  • Mickey Mouse
  • Cinderella
  • Aladdin
  • Simba and the Lion King
  • Nemo
  • 101 Dalmations

And why stop there? McDonald’s opened the floodgates with every other property they could get their hands on and over the years you’ve seen tie-ins with Transformers, Hello Kitty, G.I Joe, Lego, Barbie, Hotwheels, and Teletubbies.

The Beanie Baby craze of the ‘90s would also be a big part of the Happy Meal and McDonald’s put out a miniature version of the crazy popular stuffed animal and ended up selling 100 million of the bloody things. They would keep offering them annually and would even offer Beanie version of Ronald McDonald, Grimace, Birdie, and the Hamburgler.

Some Of The Notable 1980s Happy Meal Toys

This was the golden age of the Happy Meal toys as they were starting to incorporate in all kinds of cartoons and characters that we already knew and loved. Here are a few standouts:

  • The Muppet Babies- 1987
  • Garfield Vehicles- 1989
  • Duck Tales Figures- 1988
  • Fraggle Rock- 1988
  • Berenstain Bears- 1986
  • Chip ‘N Dale Rescue Rangers Cars- 1989
  • Fry Kids- 1989
  • McDonalds Pullback Rack Cars- 1985
  • McNugget Buddies- 1988

Not So Fast Tim Burton…

look how innocent…

So a lot of marketing tie-ins were starting to happen and pretty much all of them went off without a hitch. Except for one…

And that leads to Batman Returns, the sequel to the massively popular Batman directed by Tim Burton. Kids love Batman right? So what could go wrong?

The story of Batman is a pretty dark one already with a kid seeing his parents murdered in front of him and turning into a vigilante to take down all criminals. But things got weird in Batman Returns. I think it’s an awesome movie but you have a lot of dark stuff including a sex-crazed penguin man, a plot to kill little kids, and a lot of death along the way.

The super dark tone of Tim Burton didn’t seem to mesh well with the bright and happy yellow and red motif of McDonald’s. Before it was even finished Burton was arguing with the censors over the movie and was actually cutting out scenes and extra violence to bring it down to a PG-13 rating instead of the proposed R rating.

Since the final version was still up in the air McDonald’s only got to see a very rough cut and, not sure what the movie would end up being, signed a deal. So they started marketing this “family friendly” film with their food and Happy Meals.

Maybe it was Michelle Pfieffer being thrown out of a skyscraper or people being electrocuted to death but something didn’t feel that “family friendly” about Batman Returns. Parents started complaining about how the movie was unsuitable for children and McDonalds flipped out.

According to Burton:

“I think I upset McDonald’s. (They asked) ‘What’s the black stuff coming out of the Penguins mouth? We can’t sell Happy Meals with that!’”

The original Batman clearly wasn’t intended for children but this all gets out of hand and it’s ultimately McDonald’s fault for not being more involved with what they market. It was too late as people were pissed. One angry parent would write:

“Violence-loving adults may enjoy this film. But why on earth is McDonald’s pushing this exploitative movie through the sales of its so-called ‘Happy Meals?’ Has McDonald’s no conscience?”

So McDonald’s is pissed, Warner brothers are pissed that McDonald’s is pissed and Tim Burton is caught in the crossfire. The Happy Meal/Batman Returns debacle is seen as the start of what got Tim Burton removed from the franchise he had started. And the Batman movies went to crap until Christopher Nolan took over.

This whole ordeal made McDonald’s much more proactive with the toys and movies they would market with the Happy Meal. They would now have to go over entire scripts and it actually gave McDonald’s a lot of power dictating how films would go. It was said that McDonald’s demanded that Steven Spielberg tone down some of the violent scenes in Jurassic Park before they would sign up. It’s also why the next Batman movies returned to the more campy/cartoony style.

It looks like commerce will always trump art. You’d think McDonalds would be a bit more understanding with the whole Batman thing since they also use a clown…

Making The Happy Meal Healthier

This hisory of the Happy Meal would not be complete without some mention on the nutriton issue. McDonald’s has always been cricized on the quality of their food and I get that. At the same time they never pretended to be anything other than fast food. When you go there hungover as hell after a heavey night of drinking you know why you’re going in.

It’s not to have a kale salad.

When it comes to the Happy Meal though changes have had to take place over the years. Not a lot has changed with the Happy Meal, they added chicken nuggets in 1983 and then started to introudce little cartons of 1% milk. In 2011 they added in apple slices with a low-fat caramel dip and reduced the portion of the fries to 1.1 oz.

But even with the smaller portions there’s a lot of crap in those boxes. A cheesburger with fries and a chocolate milk contain almost 700 calories, 27 grams of fat, and a whopping 1.046 mg of sodium.

Adding the apple slices, and reducing the fry serving, may be because of what happened in 2010. On Novemeber 2, 2010 the San Francisco board of superviseors passed a law that childrens meals sold in restaurants had to meet a certain minimal nutrition requirement before they could be sold with toys.

This was a way, they hoped, to cut down on childhood obesity. Toys could only be included in meals that had 600 calories or less and less than 640mg of sodium. The meal would also have to include fruits and vegetables and beverages without an excess of sugar and fat.

Sounds good right?

Except McDonald’s were able to circumvent that law by charging ten cents for the toys. The state of California filed a class action lawsuit in 2010 to ban Happy Meal toys but the suit was dismissed in 2012.

The Legacy Of The Happy Meal

Bet you didin’t think this little box caused so many issues did you? Either way, the history of the Happy Meal is an intersting one. It fully burst on to the scene in the 1980s when we all came to know it and love it.

It was a great combination, at the time, of getting to have fast food but getting a surprise and a toy all at once. That’s some powerful stuff that has made a lot of people life long consumers of McDonald’s. We at least remember the good feelings of being taken there for something we weren’t normally going to get to eat.

It was fun to “collect all 6” of certain things and I think my favorite were definitley the Muppet Babbies and those Pullback race cars. Those still stand out in my mind.

So there’s no stopping the Happy Meal at this point, it’s too much of a heavy weight when it comes to marketing and promotion. McDonalds reportedly spends more money advertising to children than to adults and teens combined.

At the end of the day giant corporations like this will dictate a lot of our spending but when you look back on the history of the Happy Meal it at least had some humble begginings.

And check your closet for those Beanie Babies because they are worth BANK these days…