McDonald’s bold move to offer US adults one of its biggest menu items — the Happy Meal — was a success this week, as its Cactus Plant Flea Market Boxes sold out in just four days in the US.
But four decades ago, when the first Happy Meal debuted, the company didn’t quite get it.
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“They were a little reluctant. They didn’t take it right away,” said Bob Bernstein, an advertising executive who created the Happy Meal in the late 1970s, at his Kansas City office, which is adorned with Happy Meal memorabilia and original artwork.
“It took a lot of persuasion on our part.”
Bernstein, whose advertising agency did multi-city marketing for McDonald’s, had been working with the company for a decade before the Happy Meal came out.
He specialized in children’s marketing and had invented several giveaways that McDonald’s gave out to children, such as the Happy Cup featuring Ronald McDonald with a flying hamburger, the Sippy Dipper straw shaped like McDonald’s gold bows, and pencil puppets.
But McDonald’s lost its grip on the children and family market.
So McDonald’s asked Bernstein and his team to come up with a concept to attract families back.
“We lost our support for the children,” he said.
“We wanted to re-establish ourselves with kids and family and say we’re kid-friendly.”
Bernstein watched his young son eat cereal every day and noticed that he held up the cereal box every morning and brooded over it from all sides day after day.
It was something of a revelation, and he recognized 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 as the handles and puzzles, riddles, games and comic strips on the outside for kids to engage with while eating.
Bernstein and his team tapped into illustrators from across the country to highlight the boxes.
Food gets a happy name but an unfortunate start
The eatery’s name was an offshoot of a 1960s McDonald’s jingle in which it billed itself as a “happy place.”
“It’s such a happy place / Hap, hap, hap, happy place,” it said.
McDonald’s had changed its store design from red-and-white tile buildings to brick buildings in the 1970s, which children hated, and competitors like Burger Chef wooed children with gifts.
Burger King had also begun using its “King” character to appeal to children.
In 1977, the Happy Meal, which came with a full-size burger, fries, Keebler cookies, a soda pop, and a Cracker Jack surprise toy, was introduced as a promotional item only in McDonald’s franchise stores in Kansas City, Denver, and Phoenix.
For some reason, the corporate offices outside of Chicago were reluctant to roll out the Happy Meal nationwide.
“The company just didn’t grab it right away,” Bernstein said.
“They wanted to see more tests. That was a bit unusual.”
The $1.10 meal had a circus wagon theme, and the first toys were a McDoodle template, spinning top, erasers, and other products.
“Your kids will love McDonald’s Happy Meal. It’s food and fun in one box,” a commercial said that year.
Later that year, McDonald’s created a meal to tie in with the debut of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the first of many Happy Meal commercial ties to films. A television spot showed a Klingon urging parents to take their children to McDonald’s for a Star Trek meal.
Still, 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 at advertising agency Frankel, which worked with McDonald’s to transform the Happy Meal from a promotional item to a permanent menu item in the 1980s.
“The boxes were complicated. They had to find a place to store the toys,” she said.
“They thought it was too complex for their operations.”
After more than a year of successful testing, the Happy Meal was rolled out nationwide in 1979.
Toy tactics play out
As sales picked up, 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.
In the 1990s, Beanie Babies, Transformers, and Power Rangers Happy Meal toys were big hits for McDonald’s. And in 1996, the company struck a 10-year deal with Disney to create toys inspired by its films.
Food is an integral part of McDonald’s success with families, said Jonathan Maze, editor-in-chief of Restaurant Business Magazine.
“McDonald’s place in the restaurant industry is unmatched and largely because it has the family market,” he said.
“Burger King and Wendy’s have always had trouble attracting families like McDonald’s has.”
If kids want a Happy Meal and its accompanying toys, they’ll bug their parents into taking them to McDonald’s, where the chain can sell groceries to the whole family, he said.
Bernstein was not involved with McDonald’s Happy Meal strategy after it went national. (He and his agency continued to work with McDonald’s through earlier this year.)
Although his version of the Happy Meal focused on designs outside the box, toys became his main attraction.
McDonald’s became one of the largest toy retailers in the country and the toys became collectibles.
Vintage Happy Meal toys are now selling for as much as $50 on eBay.
McDonald’s then began collaborating with Hollywood studios and major toy makers like Mattel to create limited-time meals around hot toys, like Muppet Babies in 1987 and Hot Wheels a year later.
Changes in the menu
But the nutritional value of a Happy Meal and McDonald’s marketing tactics to children have been criticized almost from the start for contributing to childhood obesity.
In the mid-2000s in the US, there was mounting pressure on McDonald’s to make food healthier and ditch toys, as it was essentially a ploy to reach children.
In 2011, San Francisco enacted an ordinance that is still in force, prohibiting McDonald’s and fast-food chains from including free toys or other incentives with 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 also began setting nutritional standards for children’s meals.
In response, McDonald’s made a number of changes to the Happy Meal in the United States, reducing french fries portions, adding apples to the meal, and offering reduced-sugar, low-fat chocolate milk.
McDonald’s told CNN Business that it is “committed to marketing responsibly and helping to lead the industry in self-regulating advertising directed at children” and that it only advertises Happy Meal packages that meet nutritional criteria set by industry groups fulfill.
According to Center for Science in the Public Interest nutritionist Lindsay Moyer, who researches fast-food meals for children, McDonald’s is a leader among US fast-food chains in improving children’s meals.
And what’s included—and what’s left out—in a Happy Meal is more than just food.
“It is important for norms and habits. It tells the kids, ‘That’s what a meal is,'” she said. Hanging around toys to get kids to eat burgers and fries “also makes it harder for parents to promote healthy eating.”
https://7news.com.au/lifestyle/food/it-took-some-convincing-happy-meal-inventor-claims-mcdonalds-didnt-want-it-at-first-c-8731512 “It took some convincing”: The inventor of the Happy Meal claims McDonald’s didn’t want it at first