Of all the fast food gimmickry in the world, the Happy Meal is the greatest.
Other fast food chains tried to be clever and baroque with the name of their products. Arby’s Horsey Sauce, for instance — a mix of horseradish and mayonnaise. Cute food wordplay. But I’m staring at a knuckle of brown meat with a vague metallic-green tint, and now is the time you’d like me to think about horseys?
The Happy Meal, on the other hand, tells a child in plain, simple language everything our tiny lizard brains need to know: It’s a box full of puppies and Prozac, kid. A goddamn deep-fried double rainbow. Eat this and forget that you always get picked last in kickball because, well, ever seen your dad run?
American companies need to take a cue from The Happy Meal. Speak plain. Don’t call it Yahoo or Google. Call it Find Shit.
The Happy Meal also capitalized on the fact that most parents only buy their children toys three times a year — Christmas, birthdays and when they messed up big time and probably set your emotional development back a few years. So McDonald’s invented a box that looked like a gift and put a toy inside.
Santa Claus? He’s the deadbeat dad of the gift-giving industry. Just some guy who fills in once a year when McDonald’s is closed. Ronald McDonald was the Santa that stuck by you every single day.
In the ’70s, Happy Meal toys were not the latest and greatest. One featured Ronald’s face painted on a plastic glove that looked vaguely invasive. There was a mini milk carton with legs and eyes. A rubber Big Mac brought about 13 minutes of fun until it realized its destiny as landfill — yet another unpleasant, non-recyclable anal bead for Mother Nature, courtesy of corporate America. Few children who hadn’t swallowed large volumes of paint would actually put them on a Christmas list.
McDonald’s would eventually partner with Hollywood and get fancy through the power of co-branding. Kids in the ’90s would get Buzz Lightyear figurines, Lady and the Tramp sticker books, you name it. But when I was a kid, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to find a pair of wacky googly eyes glued to a used gym sock.
Regardless, my sister and I went ballistic for them. It didn’t matter if within the hour the family dog was ingesting the toy, or it had found a home up my rectum. Those third-rate trinkets, slicked in fry grease and ketchup, were precious gemstones. When Aunt Ann made her beef liver and onions with mashed potatoes, did she serve it with a Fraggle Rock figurine? No, she did not. I believe she’s currently lamenting that fact, since we’re no longer in her life.
The Happy Meal was also the cool lunch box some children never had. In the ’70s, lunch boxes were crucial to a child’s social standing. It takes a while to develop appealing personality traits of our own. So lunch boxes acted as personality replacement therapy. They were basically our entire identity.
If you had a Clash of the Titans lunch box, it expressed that you were a heroic boy, in a musical-theater sort of way. A Dukes of Hazzard lunch box let everyone know that your dad sets fire to crosses on black people’s lawns. A Hello Kitty lunchbox says your parents have serious issues related to the safety of your hymen.
I was truly blessed to have a Clash of the Titans lunchbox, because my parents were divorced and absence made dad’s wallet grow fonder. But many children were forced to attend school with sad, generic plastic boxes that failed to shill for a current TV or Hollywood enterprise. Those children were the ones who usually resorted to hanging out alone by the teeter-totters, selling crystal meth.
Yet even their existential box pain could be alleviated for a few bucks at Mickey D’s. The Happy Meal expressed, “I am a child whose parents care enough to buy me a party in a box!”
The box itself was some genius packaging. It was shaped like a little house, which satisfied young girls’ need to play house and young boys’ need to wreck them. On the exterior were a series of games. The games appeared to be made for the children, but were quite obviously for the adults. Children need nonstop entertainment, which is a serious drain on a parent’s sanity. Nowadays parents glue a portable game device to their hands so they can get a moment of precious silence, during which they ponder setting fire to their reproductive organs.
McDonald’s asked, “Would you like us to give your children a box that keeps them occupied for 20 full, uninterrupted, glorious minutes?” Every parent in the world funded that endeavor. The Happy Meal was the 1970s version of an iPad.
And so the Happy Meal did exactly as its name advertised; happiness for all. Its genius henceforth recognized.