McDonald's 50th: Kids
One of the best-known faces in business belongs to a red-haired, yellow-clad clown with big feet and a ready smile. Ronald McDonald, yet another of McDonald’s owner-operator-inspired megahits, first hit the airwaves in 1963 in Washington, D.C., and starred in his first television commercial three years later. The cheery clown became an ambassador for the brand among children, and by 1971 a gang of characters including Hamburglar, Grimace, Captain Crook, Professor and Mayor McCheese brought McDonaldland to life for a key demographic that would carry a connection with the chain into their adult years.
NBC “Today” personality Willard Scott portrayed Ronald McDonald in the cheery clown’s earliest appearances, but McDonald’s later replaced the now-well-known weatherman with a different actor.
Come On, Get Happy
McDonald’s Happy Meals mean business—literally. Since children began toting the colorful boxes nationwide in 1979, the chain has sold millions of meals around the world, cementing the McDonald’s brand in the minds of customers across multiple generations.
A McDonald's Timeline (Adobe PDF, 2.4MB)
“We wanted to make sure kids were not lost in the shuffle,” says Happy Meal creator Bob Bernstein (l.), president and CEO of Bernstein-Rein Advertising Inc. in Kansas City, Mo. It was there that local franchisees challenged McDonald’s Corp. to keep young customers on board with the brand after it launched bigger sandwiches, expanded menus and introduced new building styles in the mid-1970s. “I started thinking about what would make kids feel good about having a meal at McDonald’s and feeling like this restaurant was their place as well as their parents’,” he says.
Inspired by his 9-year-old son’s daily fascination with reading the cereal box that supplied his breakfast, Bernstein created a lively, interactive container that not only held a kid-sized meal but also featured games and puzzles on the sides and a toy inside. And while the Happy Meal’s look and taste have evolved since Bernstein turned over the copyright to McDonald’s in 1980—last June, Apple Dippers, apple juice and 1% milk joined menu options—the often-imitated idea’s appeal remains the same.
“It’s continuity, and it brings in instant branding,” Bernstein says. “Kids are into having fun while they eat. The Happy Meal consistently says to kids, ‘This is a great experience you’re going to have at McDonald’s.’”
Inside the Box
The first national Happy Meal program, launched in June 1979, was the Circus Wagon, featuring a traveling-cart package including a McDoodler stencil, puzzle book, McWrist wallet, ID bracelet, spinning top and McDonaldland character erasers.
The Happy Meal quickly evolved into a major marketing vehicle not just for McDonald’s but also for promotional partners. A 1996 promotion including toys tied to the animated film “101 Dalmatians” moved 86 million Happy Meals, a record that stood until April 11, 1997, when the chain began selling Teenie Beanie Baby toys with purchase of children’s meals.
The promotion was scheduled to run for 25 days, with two different toys available each week, but fueled by mania among adult Beanie Baby collectors as much as kids, all 100 million toys sold out in 10 days.
Beanie Babies returned in 1998, reportedly selling nearly 120 million Happy Meals, and were back again in 1999 and 2000 (as fund-raisers for Ronald McDonald Houses).