McDonald’s iconic Happy Meal came to us via a Chilean-Guatemalan restauranteur, a Missouri advertising agent, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
In 1974 Yolanda Fernández de Cofiño, a Chilean living in Guatemala, opened the first McDonald’s restaurant franchise in that country. A savvy businesswoman, she immediately went in search of opportunities to help the restaurant grow.
Specifically, she looked for ways to centre the restaurant around children. Bring the kids in, keep them happy, and the family will follow. McDonald’s had been pursuing this strategy for a while, and stealing from H. R. Pufnstuf to do so. Fernández de Cofiño was about to give them two million-dollar ideas.
One was the idea of hosting and facilitating children’s parties inside the restaurant. (Side note: my local McDonald’s has a sign encouraging people to enquire about hosting children’s birthdays and/or business meetings in their party room. It’s the “and/or” that I love – like you’d want to have both running at the same time.) The other was the Happy Meal.
Fernández de Cofiño began selling children’s meals. They were smaller than adult meal, just a burger, fries, an ice cream, and a toy. And they were immensely popular. McDonald’s central offices got wind of this innovation from Guatemala, and saw its potential. They employed an advertising agent in Kansas City, Missouri, named Bob Bernstein to find a way to market it. Bernstein is the one who came up with the iconic container – a hybrid of a lunch pail and a children’s cereal box. The Happy Meal went national in the United States in 1979.
The last piece of the Happy Meal equation? The endless, relentless, ubiquitous media tie-ins, of course. McDonald’s had been selling toys with their meals for years, but the very first media tie-in came that same year. In 1979, you could buy a Happy Meal themed to Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It contained puzzles, cardboard games, secret rings, “communicators,” and a serial comic strip. All are now, I’m sure, hot collector’s items for Trekkies and McDonald’s fans alike.
[End note: this website does not accept sponsorship from any other entities. Happy Meals are immensely popular with children but also highly unhealthy; while McDonald’s have attempted to ameliorate this by offering fruit and other healthy snacks, the salty fatty options remain and remain popular.]