The Happy Meal is arguably the most successful food product in America and a cultural icon. It would be difficult to find Americans who don't know what it is. But few people realize that it was launched over thirty years ago using social media. Well, the available social media. Here's the story of how that all came back.
First, let's start with a popular misconception. There is a no such thing as social media. Oh, I know, what about Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn and the hundreds, maybe thousands, of online communication venues? They're social. They just not media. Media is paid advertising. So whoever coined the term "social media" should be made to stay after blog and write on the Internet 100 times, "There is no such thing as social media."
And the only viral communication we had in the 1970's was sneezing on our fellow classmates and possibly passing them a virus. Hard to imagine, but there were no cell phones, Internet, universal remotes, etc. In fact, back in the good old days, you had to walk 20 miles in the snow just to pick up your e-mail. But I digress.
In 1979, well before most of you chickadees were born, I was Creative Director of McDonald's sales promotion agency, the Frankel Company, in Chicago. I was about 32 years old and I had a staff of 26 art directors and copywriters who worked for me mainly on promotions for McDonald's.
Keep in mind that McDonald's may have coined the term "Happy Meal," but they didn't invent the concept of packaging a meal for kids and adding a toy for bribery purposes. That was invented by Burger Chef, a fast food company that has since kicked the bun.
Burger Chef offered their customers a packaged kids' meal but it wasn't very successful. Next, Burger King tried the same concept, but it failed royally. The name "Happy Meal" was conceived by Kansas City adman Bob Bernstein whose agency apparently came up with the idea in 1977 at the request of McDonald's franchisees who were looking for a way to package a kid's meal so families would spend more money. Back then, most parents just gave their kids some of their McDonald's order.
Bernstein's genius was putting the Happy Meal in a box and adding a toy, an idea he got from watching his kid's excitement with the premiums that came in cereal boxes. He had his agency design the Happy Meal box as if it were a lunchbox, with the McDonald's Golden Arches as handles.
The Happy Meal was somewhat successful as a promotion in local markets, but not enough for McDonald's to turn it into a full-fledged national product. You see, there's a difference between a product and a promotion. A product is sold 52 weeks a year. A promotion is often in the market for six weeks, the something new is offered.
In 1979, the account team at Frankel, always on the lookout for new ideas, brought the Happy Meal to my attention and wanted the Creative Department to come up with designs for the outside of the box. To get new ideas and to know what was going to be hot down the road, I used to read Hollywood scripts before they were released as movies.
I wasn't a huge Star Trek fan, but I felt the first Star Trek movie was a good creative hook for the first national Happy Meal.
McDonald's marketing executives didn't agree. I tried hard to convince them, but they wouldn't budge. But I was convinced that licensing movies to promote products was a pretty sound idea. When I couldn't make McDonald's execs buy into my concept, I brought in the big guns, my friend Dick Wolf, currently one of Hollywood's most successful producers and the man who created the Law & Order TV franchise. Back then, Dick was producing movies, not TV, but he was always a knowledgable and brilliant producer because he understood marketing.
Dick gave at talk at the Frankel agency at a meeting attended also by McDonald's execs. Still, McDonald's was relatively unconvinced. I told them that using Star Trek for the first national Happy Meal would bring in much greater sales that what they were currently planning, showing Ronald McDonald as an astronaut in space.
The problem with Ronald McDonald, as I saw it, was that clowns appealed to a very young target audience, say kids 5-9 or maybe 5 to10. But many younger kids were afraid of clowns and kids older than 10 felt that clowns were more appropriate for kids younger than they were. Star Trek, I explained, would appeal to a much larger target audience.
McDonald's appreciated Dick Wolf's take on the entertainment industry, but wasn't quite ready to back the Star Trek movie as the creative handle for the first national Happy Meal. Then Fate stepped in. Coca-Cola bought the merchandising rights to Star Trek and gave them to McDonald's to promote Coke. Back in the 70's, eons before the days of BIG GULP drinks, kids often shared their parents' drinks. A Star Trek Happy Meal would sell a ton more of Coca-Colas.
But then Ray Kroc, McDonald's founder, stepped in. Kroc told his McDonald's execs, who told Frankel''s account execs who told me that the Big Cheese (Not Chucky) at McDonald's wanted Happy Meal sold in bags not boxes. I'm not sure if my numbers are correct, but I seem to remember that McDonald's could save $300,000 a week if Happy Meals were sold in paper bags, not cardboard boxes.
Everyone down the line agreed. Even the McDonald's marketing executives who didn't agree, agreed. Nobody who liked their job liked disagreeing with Ray Kroc. Except for me. I argued that the Happy Meal had to be sold in a box, not a bag. Now when you ague with Ray Kroc, you don't actually talk to Ray Kroc. You argue through intermediaries who don't relish the idea of returning to McDonald's headquarters with solving Ray Kroc's concerns.
STAN: Jeez, another one of Goldenberg's blogs posts has gone on forever.
He still hasn't gotten to the part where he was going to explain how the first Happy Meal was viral.
HARRIETT: Give Jack a chance. He'll get to his point. He always does. It just takes him a while.
STAN: I hope you're right.
HARRIETT: Be patient, Stan. After all, we're just figment's of Jack's imagination.
Where was I? Oh yeah, I told Kroc's henchmen that the Happy Meal was "an in-home reminder of the need to visit McDonald's." Kids were going to wake up every morning, see their collection of Happy Meal boxes on the desks or shelves in their room, then race into their parents' room proclaiming, "Mom, Dad, we've got to go back to McDonald's today. I need three more Star Trek (or Spongebob or Disney) Happy Meals to complete my collection."
I explained that putting Happy Meals in bags would make it hard for kids to collect them, the bags wouls fall on the floor. But boxes would be proudy displayed. Anyway, I told Ray Kroc's men that Happy Meals would never be successful if they were sold in bags.
Did I win the argument with Kroc and his cronies? No, but I did wear them down. And that's why Happy Meals are still in boxes. And still successful.
STAN: I still don't get it. How were Happy Meals viral.
HARRIETT: They were viral from kids to their parents. Maybe Jack should have said that.
STAN: Oh, I think he's said enough.
For more musings, secrets of the Universe, and marketing advice, stories and infotainment (is that a word?), check out Jack Goldenberg's blog, 10 Minutes of Brilliance.