Thursday, February 25, 2010
You've got to feel at least a bit nostalgic for a time when a trip to McDonald's was an incredibly exciting and highly anticipated lunchtime event. As an adult, McDonald's is usually more of a convenience affair exclusive to travel and times when we're in such a rush we can't be bothered to consume anything with marginal nutritional value. As a kid, though, McDonald's was the be-all end-all of fine dining. Give us some nugs, some sweet n' sour sauce for dunking, and throw in a cheap plastic toy, and we'd be satiated for at least an afternoon. Our parents may have been the tiniest bit uneasy about feeding us such junk, but our immediate food coma-related nap was probably more than enough to justify their decision.
While the junk food was an essential element of the McDonalds+Children=Pure Ecstasy equation, the Happy Meal toy was a critical ingredient of our satisfaction. The french fries were oily and delicious, yes, but they paled in comparison to the notion of receiving a brand new toy. While usually we'd have to pull the old "throw yourself on the floor screaming in the toy store aisle" routine sure to humiliate our parents, in this case we got the toy no questions asked. It was just that easy.
Following suit with the TY Beanie Babies craze of the 90s, McDonald's unleashed these "Teenie Beanies" in 1997. While Happy Meal toys are traditionally marketed exclusively at children, the Teenie Beanie promotion caught on in a big way with collectors. The toys quickly became best-selling Happy Meal giveaways, with adults and children alike lined up for cheeseburgers and nuggets. The chain actually ran into a serious issue with food wasting, as many adults were purchasing the Happy Meals solely for Teenie Beanie purposes and discarding their food in the trash. McDonald's had to actually sell them seperately with adult-sized food to satisfy the insatiable public.
McDonald's released two Beanies each week across a month-long span in April/May 1997, creating a self-perpetuating sea of hype. Every week, the hysteria would begin anew. I'm sure all of the very well-paid and never-harassed counter help was so pleased.
After the success of the Teenie Beanies, McDonald's learned a thing or two about appealing to collectors. Why exactly someone feels that a toy that comes free with a burger and fries is an invaluable collectible is beyond my grasp of logic, but I guess that's why I'm not a collector. These weren't fully functional electronics like the original, but each variety had some special gimmick, be it a growl or an ear wiggle. McDonald's produced 80 variations of 8 main varieties for the launch in 1999, meaning eager collectors had to return time and time again to complete their stash. McDonald's 1, Childhood obesity prevention 0.
You just don't mess with the classics. You know, even if they reinforce all types of unsavory gender stereotypes. In the eye of McDonald's toy producers, girls liked dolls, boys liked cars, and that was that. It was generally non-negotiable, though I'm sure there were occasional requests for a trans-gender toy. I don't mean a Barbie with a shaved head dressed in baggy JNCOs, of course, just the girl/boy toy switcharoo. That other way would have been interesting, though.
And that commercial? Wow. Just wow. I especially like the way the tone of the voice-over and background music change when describing the fast car versus the tiny doll with styleable (!) hair. If you've got to squeeze a wealth of gender stereotypes into a single 30 second spot, you might as well give it all you've got.
I think the reasoning behind these trick-or-treat pails was something like, "If they're not going to get anything nutritious from us, we might as well limit their eventual candy consumption by offering way-too-small Halloween candy portals." You couldn't make much of a haul with these; you'd have been far better off with a pillow case. For some reason, though, we had these stacked around our house storing toys and holiday decorations for years. I can't imagine we ever ate that many Happy Meals. Perhaps my mom force-fed them to us on the condition that she could use the pails for her home storage needs. It seems vaguely possible.
Ah, McNugget Buddies. You just don't see good fried food children's character action figures like you used to. These days, they're all Veggie Tales and their religious-tinted health-conscious ilk, but in our day we were more than happy to play with some anthropomorphized Chicken McNuggets. This was clearly a simpler time, or at least a time before parents had any access to relevant nutritional information.
When we were kids, apparently no one thought it was creepy for a commercial to feature a clown chatting conversationally with some juvenile chicken nuggets, reminiscing about their younger days and their first dipping sauce experiences. That sounds like a red flag to me, but obviously someone green lighted it. They are sort of cute, in a "I'm going to eat you and not feel remorse" type of way.
McDonald's Food Changeables
These were like the poor man's Transformers. There's something sort of innocent and benign about a cheeseburger that morphs into a killer robot. It's kind of...cute. In its own way. Even the voiceover guy can't take it seriously. "French fries become....FRY-BOT!" It sounds like he's trying to hold him some major guffaws. And who can blame him? That sentence is completely ridiculous.
Disney Movie Tie-Ins: Bambi, 101 Dalmations, Beauty and the Beast, Lion King, Hercules, Mulan....the list of cheap licensed merchandise goes on and on
I'm pretty sure I had the 1988 Bambi Happy Meal toys on display on my dresser for ten years, minimum. What? They were adorable. If I could find them today,I'd probably become that annoying person in the office whose desk is overtaken by tchotchkes and knicknacks (see Scott, Michael).
McDonald's acquired the licensing rights to all sorts of Disney paraphernalia, meaning whenever a new Disney movie premiered they were ready with a million tiny molds of all of its characters. I distinctly remember the 101 Dalmations toys because they haphazardly stuck Cruella in there. Who, I ask you, wants to play with a Cruella toy? We were all holding out for adorable puppies. I must've gotten three Cruellas before I finally got my hands on a pup.
Cabbage Patch Kids and Tonka Trucks
This was our other major boy/girl specific promotion. Obviously they never got too far thinking outside the box. Dolls and Cars, Dolls and Trucks. Big leap on that one.
We've got a similar Changeable concept here, only with...dinosaurs? Don't ask, I don't know what kind of weirdos they had in their development department, but McNuggetasaurus? Really? Is that an actual thing? To be fair, it is sort of cute, but you've got wonder the route to getting that into production.
Super Mario Bros 3
This ad is awesome. I love it. It just encompasses so much nostalgia in every beep. It manages to combine two things we loved as children (Super Mario Brothers and fast food) and combine them into a neat little package, complete with take-home toy. Well done, McDonald's.
As the promotions cycled in and out monthly, there are dozens of others I simply couldn't contain within the confines of a single post. Feel free to wax poetic about your favorites in the comments section. Just don't get too carried away; we don't want any of you inadvertently morphing into FRY-BOTS or a MCNUGGETASAURUS! Okay, okay, I admit it. That wasn't really related. I just desperately wanted to use those words again. They're adorable. Now knock yourselves out reminiscing about fast food freebies, kids. It's been fun.