Happy Happy 25th

September 06, 2004

HOW DID YOU spend your summer vacation? Chances are, there was a moment - perhaps during a midday drive along some gridlocked stretch of interstate - when the kids launched into their backseat chorus. "Puleeeaase, can we get a Happy Meal?" Don't deny it. No one under the age of 10 (not even the offspring of the most steadfast granola-eaters) is immune from the McDonald's siren song, at least not when a Happy Meal toy is involved.

Yes, it's all about the toys. This summer marks the 25th anniversary of the Happy Meal. It's more than a burger or chicken nuggets with fries and a drink. It's an American totem. With a toy. And not the cheap kind of trinket you get in a box of Cracker Jack, either. Often, they're battery-operated or wind-up or plush and collectible. Remember the Teenie Beanie Baby craze of the '90s? Customers were shelling out hundreds of dollars to buy Happy Meals during that promotion.

Believe it or not, it all started when a Kansas City ad agency executive was looking for a kid-oriented attraction for the fast-food chain. At the time, McDonald's promoted itself as the "Hap, Hap, Happy Place to Be." But the brilliance of the idea wasn't the name - it was the pairing of food with children's entertainment. And did we mention the toy?

The Happy Meal has spawned imitators from Burger King to Chick-fil-A, and even the most humble neighborhood diner now feels obliged to pass out crayons and paper to its youngest patrons.

Of course, it's debatable whether this was a particularly good thing for children or families. Fast-food meals are notoriously high in fat and sodium, and they've helped bulk up a generation of youngsters to disturbing levels of obesity. Marketing experts say the product was designed to annoy - the fact that kids pine for them (and steer their families toward McDonald's) is exactly what's made them so valuable to the restaurant chain.

Still, it's hard not to admire their sheer effectiveness as child-magnets and multilayered marketing tools. Many of the toys are designed to promote a movie or TV show, or a line of toys, or all three.

Why no adult Happy Meals, you may ask? Actually, McDonald's has done that, too. Earlier this year, they sold millions of Happy Meals featuring salads, bottled water and a free pedometer, making them arguably the least fun Happy Meal ever devised. But never fear, others have chosen to combine unhealthful food and addictive entertainment to lure the most strong-willed of grown-ups. Think Vegas and its imitators, baby, where round-the-clock gambling and all-you-can-eat buffets are the big draw. Now that's where a quarter-century of McMarketing acumen gets you.

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