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); there are lessons in systemic cruelty (the 100th anniversary of the 1919 Chicago race riots), and also studies in self-determination (the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall demonstrations for gay rights) and later this year, genuine change (the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall).
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.
We could celebrate Happy Meals:
The past decade has seen McDonald’s introduce leaner versions, with apple slices and fewer fries per box; according to the Chicago-based 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 collector’s 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 a statement, Silvia Lagnado, McDonald’s global chief marketing officer, said: “Thanks to the Happy Meal, most adults associate McDonald’s with special childhood memories.” She added that the Happy Meal “created an incredibly valuable heritage in playfulness and fun.”
We could also bemoan Happy Meals:
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.
But there’s an even larger existential question here:
Who created the Happy Meal?
Go to the McDonald’s website and, among an extensive accounting of its milestones, there’s no Happy Meal. There are notes on the birth of Egg McMuffins (1975), the opening of Hamburger University in Elk Grove, Ill. (1961); they recognize the (Canadian) creation of the McFlurry (1995), and the launch of all-day breakfast (2015). But no Happy Meal, and considering how much Happy Meals contribute to the identity of McDonald’s — the company says 25% of its business is from families, and the data firm Sense360 once figured that, for a select period of 2017, McDonald’s was selling 3.2 million Happy Meals a day, creating $10 million in revenue daily — it’s an odd oversight.
Or just honest.
Because the creation of the Happy Meal was somewhat nebulous. It’s a portrait of far-flung creative people, recognizing the need for the same thing at roughly the same time.
In the late 1970s, I went on a field trip with my class to the kitchen of a McDonald’s in Rhode Island. We toured the grounds and learned how hamburgers were made, we heard about the founder Ray Kroc, then assembled for a lunch of Happy Meals. Happy Meals were a big deal in the late ’70s. Months earlier, when the Happy Meal debuted, I rode my bike to a McDonald’s 2 miles from home. The commercials were all over Saturday morning TV. I needed an eraser shaped like Grimace. But my Happy Meal prize was always a top or a stencil.
So I got a lot of Happy Meals, and I got chubby.
Of course, 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. Franchises were innovating. But they couldn’t afford millions of toys.”
By the mid-’70s, the idea of a children’s meal box (with a Cracker Jack-like prize) had been floating around the fast-food industry. Paul Schrage, now-retired senior executive vice president of McDonald’s — he OK’d the Happy Meal to go national — says bluntly: “The idea (for the Happy Meal) came from our competitor, Burger Chef, which had been offering gifts to kids. Our regional ad manager in St. Louis, Dick Brams, was aware of this and thought it was a nifty idea, and he contacted a guy in Kansas City named Bob Bernstein.” He said: “I came up with the Happy Meal, in 1975, as I watched my son at the breakfast table reading his cereal box. He did it every morning. I thought, we make a box for McDonald’s that holds a meal and gives kids things to do.”
At a meeting with franchise owners, Bernstein heard that “moms needed something simple to handle” and restaurant owners wanted to streamline the often chaotic ordering of kids’ food. So he began trademarking cups, plates, lids as “Happy Cups,” “Happy Plates,” etc. He made a deal with Keebler for cookies; he hired children’s book illustrators and graphic designers to work on a box.
He wasn’t the first.
As early as 1973, the Indianapolis-based Burger Chef had been offering its own Fun Meals that included a toy. Burger Chef even had “Star Wars” boxes in 1978. According to Meredith Williams, a Joplin, Missouri, collector of fast-food ephemera who wrote two guides to collecting Happy Meals, individual McDonald’s franchises around the country had tested similar concepts, from trick-or-treat packages and Mayor McCheese bags.
Still, Bernstein perfected the idea, Schrage said.
Ask those who contributed to the early days of the Happy Meal if they feel any guilt about the Happy Meal, and generally they say that fast-food nutrition and marketing was less of a concern in 1979. Asked why the Happy Meal worked at all, Schrage, the retired McDonald’s executive, said it was all about adding value: “You are getting not a toy, but a Disney toy, advertised on television, maybe connected to a movie. And it all adds value and makes that (Happy Meal) more important to a kid. And that’s why it was successful.”
Depending who answers, the Happy Meal was about competition.
Or finding new audiences.
Or exploiting kids.
But the lesson is, you can’t make everyone happy.