Since its introduction in 1979, the Happy Meal has been part of the childhoods of millions of kids across the globe. Unlike most other meals, though, this brightly packaged kids' meal isn't most well-known for the food that it contains. Instead, it's the tiny plastic trinkets that accompany each meal that have gained notoriety.
In the decades after McDonald's introduced the Happy Meal and its associated toys, most fast-food establishments followed suit in giving tangible, inedible gifts to their pint-sized customers. In the beginning, the Happy Meal toy was viewed as a harmless freebie, but in recent years, the tiny plastic figurines have come under attack by everyone from healthy eating advocates to pissed off parents.
Outside of McDonald's, other fast-food chains have made toys a part of their kids' meals throughout the years, including Sonic Drive-In, Burger King, Subway, and Wendy's. A sub-Reddit called r/KidsMealToys tracks the most current offerings, keeping toy collectors abreast of the latest Star Wars and Minions figures available at chains across the country. As far as fast-food companies are concerned, the toy is an integral part of appealing to its youngest customers.
Other fast-food chains dole out toys to children in meals marketed specifically to children, but the McDonald's Happy Meal is the most popular and enduring of all fast food kids' meals. So why has the Happy Meal toy become such a fixture in American fast-food culture? To understand why the Happy Meal inspires such devotion and derision, it's important to examine the history of the kids' meal toy, its ubiquity in the American childhood, and what the new frontier of marketing to young children looks like.
The origins of the Happy Meal are somewhat muddled. Dick Brams, a St. Louis marketing manager, is widely known as the "father of the Happy Meal," but McDonald's officially credits the idea to an advertising executive named Bob Bernstein. The story goes that Bernstein developed the Happy Meal based on an idea from Yolanda Fernandez de Cofiño, a Guatemalan McDonald's operator who created the "Menu Ronald," a combination meal of a hamburger, small fries, and a small sundae for kids.
In the beginning, Happy Meal toys were pretty dinky by today's standards. Before the Happy Meal hit the market, McDonald's offered a "Treat of the Week," a small trinket or toy, alongside its regular menu offerings. When the circus-wagon themed Happy Meal was first introduced in 1979, excited kids opened their festively decorated cardboard boxes to find a "McDoodler" stencil, a snazzy "McWrist" wallet, or an eraser in the shape of a McDonaldland character. But later that year, the chain would introduce the first themed Happy Meal to promote Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The Star Trek-themed meals were sold in packaging that featured images and puzzles related to the film.
In 1987, McDonald's upped the ante by debuting the first Disney-themed Happy Meal, offering sticker books, pop-up books, and other goodies that prominently featured familiar characters from Cinderella, The Sword In The Stone, and other animated classics. Since, the collaboration has produced hundreds of Disney-inspired toys featuring characters from Finding Nemo, 101 Dalmatians, The Lion King, and more.
It wasn't until 1996, though, that peak Happy Meal toy mania would hit. That year, McDonald's introduced Teenie Beanie Babies, the tiny plush toys that would inspire the most popular collectible craze of the '90s. Collectors snapped up the toys, which were sold at McDonald's restaurants between 1996 and 2000, so quickly that many restaurants exhausted their supplies before the promotion ended.
Unfortunately, the toys didn't quite hold their value, and can be found on eBay from $5 to $75 for complete, unopened sets of Teenie Beanies. Still, some hobbyists, like the members of the McDonald's Collectors Club, collect the toys. In 1990, McDonald's toy enthusiast Linda Gegorski formed the Club with 18 original charter members, and rented out the Fremont, Ohio Holiday Inn to host the first convention for Happy Meal toy collectors. For the past 25 years, the Club has continued to host their convention, where collectors can buy, sell, and trade their wares, along with viewing unusual and rare McDonald's collectibles.
McDonald's has, over the years, continued to experiment with the Happy Meal. In 2004, the chain introduced so-called "adult Happy Meals" with a focus on healthy eating. The meals included a salad, McDonald's-branded fitness DVD, Dasani water, and a pedometer. The offering was incredibly short-lived, lasting only a few weeks before being discontinued. Last year, it was reported that McDonald's has plans to re-introduce the concept as "Mini Meals," a value menu offering for adults that does not, unfortunately, come with a toy.
McDonald's Happy Meal toys, for the most part, managed to avoid attracting much controversy until 2010, when San Francisco Supervisor Eric Mar introduced an effort to ban toy giveaways that entice children to eat food that was "unhealthy."
"When you put a toy in a meal, you're obviously marketing it to children. It's a really blatant strategy," says Marlene Schwartz, director of the University of Connecticut's Rudd Center on Food Policy and Obesity. "Given the problem with poor nutrition in children and childhood obesity, you didn't want these meals providing empty calories. It's not so much that [advocates] wanted to get rid of the toys, but if you're going to have the toy in there, it should at least be with a meal that is recommended for consumption by that age group."
Ultimately, the ban was vetoed by San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, but the city's Board of Supervisors collected enough votes to override the veto. Still, McDonald's already had a plan to subvert the ban — charge 10 cents for Happy Meal toys, and donate the proceeds to their Ronald McDonald House Charities.
But McDonald's and other fast-food companies were feeling the pinch, and quickly changed their policies. In 2014, a Centers for Disease Control study found that the ban had been effective in making kids' meals healthier in San Francisco. Around the same time, McDonald's began rolling out healthier options — milk instead of soda, apple slices instead of French fries, and most recently, the addition of easy-peel clementines — to kids' meals.
The toys, however, have persevered. In Schwartz's view, that isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially when you consider that studies show that children prefer the flavor of snacks if they're branded with their favorite characters, like Dora the Explorer or SpongeBob SquarePants. "I think the basic consensus is that using these sorts of branding and marketing strategies to [encourage kids to] eat healthier foods is certainly better than encouraging them to eat unhealthy foods," she says. "If your real goal is improving kids' diets, it's critical to find whatever strategy it takes to encourage kids to eat healthier. If that means giving them a toy or a package with a character they love, then whatever it takes."
She does, however, note that she is among a group of "purists," who have concerns about the way that McDonald's and other food companies market to children. "Why are we marketing to children?" she asks. "Why is it in our culture that we are trying to convince children to be involved in purchasing decisions?"
Joining the chorus of concern is author and professor Joel Bakan, whose 2012 book Childhood Under Siege examined the ways in which children are targeted by marketers. In Bakan's view, children are uniquely vulnerable to the marketing strategies utilized by marketers to connect their favorite characters with cheeseburgers and sodas. "There's a lot of solid social science evidence on the effects of free toy giveaways," says Bakan. "These foods are designed to promote addictive and compulsive consumption by kids and adults. Kids just happen to be much more susceptible, and the toys certainly don't help."
In the coming years, you can reliably expect the plastic Happy Meal toy to go by the wayside. As we move more deeply into the digital era, it's much more cost-effective for fast-food companies to transition their kid-enticing strategies into the 21st century. "The marketing industry is moving well beyond primitive approaches to advertising to children," says Bakan. "When you give away a free toy or have a character on the package, that's all going to seem really simple and primitive when we look at some of these more sophisticated digital approaches."
The shift is already happening. McDonald's introduced the McPlay mobile app in 2013, where kids can scan the QR codes on their Happy Meal toys to unlock games and other exclusive digital content. At HappyMeal.com, they can scope out current and future toy offerings, download McDonald's-branded e-books and coloring sheets, and play games.
"There's a huge industry of virtual goods where companies are selling things that are nothing more than pixels," says Bakan. "Kids are engaging more now, at younger ages, with tablets, smartphones, laptops, and perhaps are playing less with toys. In that context, issues of product placement are really important."
Also changing, though, are Americans' dining habits. A 2015 analysis found that diners' visits to fast-food chains have consistently declined in recent years, and McDonald's reported dismal profits throughout three quarters of last year, bolstered only after the chain introduced all-day breakfast this year. Fast-casual chains like Chipotle, which offer ostensibly healthier options, are filling the void for the customers that have deserted the drive-thru window, but most have opted out of adding a toy to meal options directed at children.
Other fast-food chains have gotten out of the kids' meal business altogether. In 2013, Taco Bell announced that they would phase out their children's menu, saying that the meals "simply no longer make sense for us to put resources behind." Jack in the Box still offers kids' meals, but the chain discontinued toy giveaways in 2011. Schwartz thinks that other chains may begin to follow suit.
"I think that there will be a division in the field where the fast-food restaurants who truly think that young children and their parents are a core constituency will always have something to appeal to young children," says Schwartz. "When Taco Bell started getting criticism about their kids' meals, they just got rid of them. We may start to see that more."
Unless the rest of those fast-food chains disappear in the coming years, though, you shouldn't expect for the Happy Meal prize to go away any time soon — it might just take a different form. "I wouldn't be surprised if places like McDonald's start handing out codes to kids who feel like they're going to get some kind of prize. It's certainly less expensive," says Schwartz. "The really, really small kids would probably still want something physical, but the age at which kids become able to use an iPad is getting younger and younger. There's not a huge window between a child first eating solid food and being able to use an iPad anymore."