First Happy Meal was launched with social media over thirty years ago.

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.




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Tags: Dick, Happy, McDonald's, Neal, Wolf


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Comment by LisaF. on June 17, 2011 at 3:07pm
Unreal! LOL. That is great stuff you have :) BRILLIANT!!! What marketing!
Comment by Jack Goldenberg on June 17, 2011 at 1:10pm

Thanks, Lisa. Here's another story you might like. In 1972, I appointed myself Head of Earth and promoted the first International Earth Day. I am not claiming I had anything to do with the first Earth Day in 1970. But two years later, enthusiasm for Mother Earth was starting to wane with a "been there, done that" attitude. I felt, instead, that the effort should be expanded, that taking care of our planet was a never-ending responsibility.

So with humor, I even got the UN to back my efforts to sell "Tickets of Admission to the Earth" with the money raised going to environmental groups. Jack

Comment by LisaF. on June 17, 2011 at 12:53pm
What a great story and experience Jack! I appreciate hearing how products and ideas evolve. Amazing! Social media or a social marketing can truly come in different forms.
Comment by Robin on June 16, 2011 at 12:06am
Love it! That is hilarious!
Comment by Jack Goldenberg on June 15, 2011 at 11:04pm
Hey Robin, thanks. I have a lot of great McDonald's stories. Like the time I hired a guy dressed as Spider-Man to make a presentation for me to McDonald's. One of McDonald's top executives asked ne, "Is that the real Spider-Man?" Pretty funny from a guy who worked for a company that employed 80 Ronald McDonalds. 

If you liked by blog, I know you'll like the name of my freelance company,  Einstein, da Vinci & Goldenberg.
Comment by Robin on June 15, 2011 at 10:53pm
Hi Jack, I just read this. BRILLIANT! This is some great stuff. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall during some of these discussions. BTW, I used to live for that happy meal box! LOL. I agree with Rory below that the word of mouth is social but the way you describe media (that is must be paid) I guess "social media" as free kind of makes the distinction. Is that the general consensus that free media is not media? Never thought of it that way.
Comment by Jack Goldenberg on June 15, 2011 at 10:06pm
Thanks, Rory that means a lot. This is a great site and it's been very helpful to me, but I don't post here that often because I need to keep improving the traffic on my actual blog, 10 Minutes of Brilliance. Check it out. Jack
Comment by Rory on June 15, 2011 at 3:15pm
Jack, I truly enjoyed this post!!!! When you put it that way, you are right. It was a viral mouth to mouth concept of social media. Amazing! Thanks for posting this awesome story! Can't wait to see more b/c it looks like you have a lot of marketing experience where you can compare then and now.

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