McDonald’s said this week that it sold half of its new Happy Meals geared toward adults –Cactus Plant Flea Market Boxes– in just four days. But four decades ago, when the first Happy Meal debuted, the company didn’t quite get it.
“They were reluctant a little bit. They didn’t immediately embrace it,” Bob Bernstein, an advertising executive who created the Happy Meal in the late 1970s, said in a video interview from his Kansas City office, which is decked out with Happy Meal memorabilia and original art. “It took some convincing on our part.”
Bernstein, whose ad agency ran marketing for McDonald’s (MCD) in several cities, had been working with McDonald’s (MCD) for a decade before the Happy Meal debuted.
He specialized in kids’ marketing and had invented several promotional gifts McDonald’s gave out to kids, such as the Happy Cup showing Ronald McDonald with a flying hamburger, the Sippy Dipper straw shaped like McDonald’s golden arches and pencil puppets.
But McDonald’s was losing its grip on the market for kids and families.
McDonald’s had changed its store design from red and white-tiled buildings to brick in the 1970s, which kids hated, and competitors like Burger Chef were winning over kids with gifts. Burger King had also started using its “King” character to appeal to children.
So McDonald’s asked Bernstein and his team to develop a concept to entice families again.
“We were losing our endorsement of the kids,” he said. “We wanted to reestablish ourselves with kids and the family and say we were kid friendly.”
Bernstein watched his young son eat cereal every day and noticed that each morning he would hold up the cereal box and pore over it on all sides, day after day. It was something of a revelation, and he realized 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 handles and puzzles, riddles, games and comic strips on the outside for kids to engage with while they ate. Bernstein and his team tapped illustrators from around the country to make the boxes stand out.
The meal’s name was an offshoot of a 1960s McDonald’s jingle, in which it called itself the “happy place.” “It’s such a happy place / Hap, hap, hap, happy place,” it went.
In 1977, the Happy Meal, which came with a regular-size burger, fries, Keebler cookies, a soda and a Cracker Jack surprise toy, launched only in McDonald’s franchise stores in Kansas City, Denver and Phoenix as a promotional item. For some reason, the company’s corporate offices outside Chicago were reluctant to roll out the Happy Meal nationally.
“Corporate just didn’t seize it immediately,” Bernstein said. “They wanted to see more testing. That was a bit unusual.”
After more than a year of successful tests, the Happy Meal went national in 1979.
The $1.10 meal was circus wagon-themed and its the first toys were a McDoodle stencil, a spinning top, erasers and other products.”Your kids will love McDonald’s Happy Meal. It’s food and fun in a box,” said a commercial that year.
Later that year, McDonald’s created a meal tied to the debut of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” movie, the first of many Happy Meal promotional tie-ins to movies. A TV spot featured a Klingon telling parents to bring their children to McDonald’s for a Star Trek meal.
Still, the Happy Meal was not embraced by many franchise owners, who worried it would disrupt their operations.
“It wasn’t a very popular concept,” said Colleen Fahey, the creative director at ad agency Frankel, which worked with McDonald’s to turn 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 it was too complex for their operations.”
But as sales took off, McDonald’s and its franchise operators 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.
Bernstein was not involved in McDonald’s Happy Meal strategy after it went national. (He and his agency continued working with McDonald’s until earlier this year.)
Although his version of the Happy Meal centered on the designs outside the box, toys became its main appeal. McDonald’s turned into one of the largest toy distributors in the country and the toys became collectors’ items. Vintage Happy Meal toys now sell for up to $50 on eBay.
McDonald’s then began working with Hollywood studios and major toy manufacturers such as Mattel (MAT) to create limited-time meals around hot toys, such as Muppet Babies in 1987 and Hot Wheels a year later.
In the 1990s, Beanie Babies, Transformers and Power Rangers Happy Meal toys were massive hits for McDonald’s. And in 1996, the company struck a 10-year deal with Disney (DIS) to create toys inspired by their movies.
The meal has been integral to McDonald’s success with families, said Jonathan Maze, the editor-in-chief at Restaurant Business Magazine.
“McDonald’s place in the restaurant industry is second to none and largely because it has the family market,” he said. “Burger King and Wendy’s have always struggled to attract families the way McDonald’s has.”
If kids want a Happy Meal and the accompanying toy, they’ll bug their parents to take them to McDonald’s, where the chain can sell food to the whole family, he said.
Changes to the menu
But the nutritional value of a Happy Meal and McDonald’s marketing tactics to kids have been criticized from nearly the start for contributing to childhood obesity.
In the mid-2000s, pressure on McDonald’s swelled to make the meal healthier and eliminate the toys as they were essentially a selling gimmick to reach kids.
In 2011, San Francisco passed an ordinance, which is still in force, that prohibited McDonald’s and fast food chains from including free toys or other incentives with kids’ meals that didn’t meet minimal nutritional standards. (Customers can buy a toy for an additional 10 cents, and McDonald’s donates the proceeds to charity.)
Cities and states also began setting nutrition standards for kids’ meals. The first kids’ meal policy was passed in 2010 in Santa Clara County, California, and nearly two dozen other states and localities have adopted kids’ 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 french fries portion by more than half, added apples to the meal and offered reduced sugar low fat chocolate milk. It also removed soda in 2013 and in 2018 announced cheeseburgers wouldn’t be part of the meal, although parents can still ask for them.
And it has reduced the meal’s calorie count. Today, there are 475 calories in a Happy Meal, down around 20% from five years ago.
McDonald’s told CNN Business that it is “committed to marketing responsibly and helping lead the industry on self-regulation around advertising to children,” and that it only advertises Happy Meal bundles that meet nutritional criteria set by industry groups.
McDonald’s has been a leader among fast food chains in improving kids’ meals, said Lindsay Moyer, a nutritionist at Center for Science in the Public Interest who researches fast food meals for kids.
She applauds McDonald’s for removing soda, shrinking the fries and adding fruit. But these steps are “piecemeal” and the Happy Meal remains on the whole unhealthy she said. “There’s not a lot nutrient-dense food.”
She noted that McDonald’s has said it would look to add grains or vegetables to the meal, but there’s been no change.
And what’s included in a Happy Meal – and what’s left out – is more than just about food. “It’s important for norms and habits. It’s saying to kids ‘this is what a meal is,’” she said. Dangling toys to get kids to eat burgers and fries also “makes it more difficult for parents to promote healthy eating.”