Arch Rivals: Unboxing the History of the McDonald's Happy Meal

The McDonald's Happy Meal has a murky history.
The McDonald's Happy Meal has a murky history.
McDonald's

Bob Bernstein was getting annoyed with his son. It was the mid-1970s, and Bernstein, an advertising executive based in Kansas City, watched as 10-year-old Steve applied the same ritualistic approach to his breakfast. Each morning, Steve would pour himself a bowl of cereal then sit at the table staring at the cereal box. He read the front, the back, and the sides, over and over again.

When his father asked him about this seemingly peculiar routine, Steve explained that “It’s just something to do.”

Bernstein realized Steve was no outlier. Unlike adults, who prefer to socialize and chat, kids liked looking at something while they ate. He kept this lesson in mind when McDonald’s tasked him with developing a child-friendly meal package that would hopefully entice younger consumers into eating at the restaurant more often.

By 1979, Bernstein’s Happy Meal was being rolled out nationally, and would go to become an indelible part of the fast food franchise’s business model. Tucked into a cardboard box full of illustrations, games, and puzzles was a complete meal, plus a toy.

But Bernstein’s claim of sole Happy Meal authorship has been hotly debated over the decades. In fact, no fewer than four entities, including one Guatemalan franchisee and one pioneering burger joint, have made a convincing argument that they, not Bernstein, were responsible for this contribution to popular and gastronomic culture.

 

In the early 1970s, McDonald’s didn’t have an organized outreach program for marketing to children. While the fictional McDonaldland and characters like Mayor McCheese and Grimace appeared in commercials, the actual menu wasn’t particularly kid-friendly. Parents and employees were to forced to watch helplessly as younger customers gave slapdash orders, cobbling together a meal from the menu. It exasperated adults, who wanted to get in and out more quickly, as well as restaurant franchisees, who felt the company could be doing more to attract kids.

McDonald's wasn't always marketing directly to kids. That changed in the 1970s. McDonald's

The company asked Cleveland, Ohio, advertising expert Joe Johnston to research the problem; he came up with the idea of a sack that had activities on the packaging. But a bigger influence for McDonald’s was one of their biggest fast-food competitors, Burger Chef. In 1973, the burger chain introduced its Fun Meal, a cardboard box with games, riddles, and comic strips that housed a burger, fries, a sugary treat, and a soda. There was also frequently a toy or small vinyl record inside. In 1978, Burger Chef had even scored big with a license for a Star Wars Fun Meal, possibly the first example of a major movie tie-in with a fast food kid’s item.

The Fun Meal definitely pre-dates Bernstein’s assertion that he came up with the Happy Meal in 1975 or 1976, which was when he had been assigned the task by McDonald’s St. Louis regional advertising manager Dick Brams. In fact, Paul Schrage, the senior vice president of McDonald’s, was aware of the Fun Meal and so was Brams. It was Brams who directed Bernstein to come up with a way for McDonald’s to offer a menu option just for kids.

Whether Bernstein knew about the Fun Meal or simply used his son’s cereal box habits to inform his choices is unclear: In 2019, Bernstein told the Chicago Tribune that he had already been working on a design for a kid-friendly menu item when Brams contacted him. What we do know is that Bernstein developed a pre-sorted kid’s meal that was served in a cardboard box featuring puzzles, jokes, and games. (Bernstein trademarked the Happy Meal name, though he later transferred it to McDonald’s for $1.)

After two years of market testing in cities like Kansas City, Phoenix, and Denver in 1977 and 1978, McDonald’s introduced the Happy Meal to the rest of America in 1979. Each box, which had a circus wagon theme, came with a hamburger or cheeseburger, fries, cookies, and a soft drink. Inside the $1.15 box was a “special prize” that was one of several novelty items. Kids could find a McDoodler stencil, a McWrist wallet, an ID bracelet, a puzzle lock, a spinning top, or a McDonaldland character eraser. Later that year, the company entered into its first Happy Meal licensing agreement, issuing a Happy Meal tie-in for the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Happy Meals have been a perpetual presence at McDonald’s ever since.

To Bernstein’s chagrin, Brams’s death in 1988 brought with it reports that Brams was the “father” of the Happy Meal. In fact, Bernstein had been given a bronze Happy Meal in acknowledgment of his efforts the previous year. He gently disputed the claim, saying that Brams became involved with the Happy Meal only after it had been conceptualized. Certainly, the two could have differing viewpoints on how much each brought to the assignment of creating a marketing strategy for kids.

But any combination of Brams and Bernstein leaves out one crucial contribution in the Happy Meal timeline: the work of Yolanda Fernandez de Cofiño, a onetime Guatemalan McDonald’s operator and now president of McDonald’s Guatemala, and the individual McDonald’s credits for being the originator of the Happy Meal.

 

Yolanda's husband, José María Cofiño, founded the first McDonald’s in Guatemala in 1974. Yolanda noticed that customers, particularly younger ones, didn’t have a full understanding of how McDonald’s labeled their food. A kid might order a Big Mac not knowing it was a substantial burger.

To solve the problem, Yolanda created Ronald’s Menu in 1977. It was a way of designating a fun food order for children and consisted of a burger, fries, soda, and a sundae. Yolanda added a toy or novelty item that she had purchased at a local market. However, Yolanda’s idea didn’t include an illustrated box; Ronald’s Menu was served on a tray.

Yolanda claimed she presented the idea of the kid’s menu during a McDonald’s marketing conference in Chicago in 1977, the same year the company began market-testing Bernstein’s Happy Meal in select cities. In 1982, the company gave her a silver Ronald McDonald statue for developing the Happy Meal as well as raising the brand’s profile among children.

It seems as though McDonald’s was faced with a key problem—marketing to kids—and that several people had a similar approach as to how best to address it. While Yolanda conceived of offering a toy with a meal, it was Bernstein who was conceptualized the McDonald’s Happy Meal packaging, and it was Brams who stayed busy securing toy deals for the Happy Meal in the years to come.

Happy Meals have become part of popular culture. Erik Voake, Getty Images for McDonald's

Naturally, Burger Chef had a different interpretation. In 1979, shortly before the Happy Meal was scheduled to roll out nationally, the company sued McDonald’s for $5.5 million for infringing on their Fun Meal idea. The lawsuit fizzled out, however, and the ailing Burger Chef franchise was eventually absorbed by Hardee’s in 1982.

By 2017, McDonald’s was selling an average of 3.2 million Happy Meals daily, which have been stuffed over the years with everything from Transformers to Teenie Beanie Babies, which were greeted with high consumer demand in 1996. Collectors covet original Happy Meal toys and particularly the boxes, which were frequently thrown away and consequently became valuable when found intact.

Who was responsible for those boxes? History has a few answers. In all likelihood, McDonald’s took note of Burger Chef’s Fun Meal and wanted to create something similar. Bernstein shaped that notion into the Happy Meal around the same time Yolanda was offering a value menu option to kids. Like McDonald’s itself, which was opened by Richard and Maurice McDonald but brought to new heights by Ray Kroc, everyone had something to contribute.

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Anti-Pasta: When Italian Futurists Tried to Ban Pasta in Italy

A pasta vendor in Naples during the late 19th or early 20th century.
A pasta vendor in Naples during the late 19th or early 20th century.
Carlo Brogi, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

While speaking at a multi-course banquet in Milan on November 15, 1930, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti presented his fellow Italians with an incendiary call to action. Pasta, he said, was a “passéist food” that “[deluded people] into thinking it [was] nutritious” and made them “heavy, brutish,” “skeptical, slow, [and] pessimistic.” As such, it should be abolished and replaced with rice.

So began an outrageous crusade against the country’s most beloved carbohydrate. Not only did Marinetti's movement elicit passionate reactions on both sides, but it also had some less-than-tenuous ties to Benito Mussolini's fascist regime.

Mr. Rice Guy

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (center) and his fellow Italian Futurists in Paris in 1912.Proa, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Marinetti’s initial statement spread so widely because he himself loomed large over society at the time. His 1909 “Manifesto of Futurism” launched the Futurist movement, which championed a shift away from the slow, outmoded processes of the past and toward the sleek technologies of the future. Though originally specific to art, Futurism was a nationalist cause at heart—a way for the newly unified country to catch up to other world powers—and it aligned with Mussolini’s fledgling political campaign. In fact, the two men collaborated closely while establishing their respective political parties (Marinetti’s Fasci Politici Futuristi and Mussolini’s Fasci di Combattimento) as World War I came to a close. Marinetti had distanced himself from Mussolini by the early 1920s, but he still invoked Il Duce’s policies when they served his goals.

For the pasta prohibition, they did. To make Italy less reliant on imported wheat, Mussolini’s administration had started promoting rice—which was much easier to produce domestically—over pasta. In the late 1920s, he established the “National Rice Board” and even declared November 1 to be “National Rice Day.” As Philip McCouat writes for the Journal of Art History, the dictator never went so far as to ban macaroni, but citizens were already familiar with anti-pasta sentiment by the time Marinetti began his smear campaign.

On December 28, 1930, the Futurist followed up his dinner speech with the “Manifesto of Futurist Cooking,” co-written with the artist Luigi Colombo (known as “Fillìa”) and published in Turin’s Gazzetta del popolo. In it, they described pasta itself as an “absurd Italian gastronomic religion” and pasta lovers as being “shackled by its ball and chain like convicted lifers or [carrying] its ruins in their stomachs like archaeologists.”

In short, they believed that pasta weighed Italians down and prevented them from achieving any kind of greatness. The ultimate solution was for the government to replace all food with nutritional pills, powders, and other artificial substitutes, but until the chemists could create such innovations, the Futurists would settle for swapping out pasta with rice. “And remember too,” they wrote, “that the abolition of pasta will free Italy from expensive foreign wheat and promote the Italian rice industry.”

Starch Enemies and Allies

While Marinetti’s initial speech had incited a small uprising among Italians, his written manifesto gave the issue a global audience. “Fascist Writer, All Wound Up in Health Subject, Begs Countrymen to Swallow New Theory,” the Chicago Tribune summarized in an article titled “Italy May Down Spaghetti,” which hit newsstands just two days after Marinetti’s manifesto.

Smaller presses covered the bombshell, too. “No, signor. We beseech you, call off your holy war,” Ernest L. Meyer pontificated in Madison, Wisconsin’s The Capital Times. “Would you abolish macaroni and all its tunefully christened cousins—macaroncelli, foratini, maglietti, ditalini, vermicelli—and reduce Italians to the ugly dissonances of beans, cabbage, chops, chard, and chewing gum? Fie, signor, there is no poetry in your soul, and your palate lacks wit.”

Pasta drying in the streets of Naples in 1897.J.F. Jarvis, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

People living everywhere from France to Australia commented on the matter, but nowhere was the response more impassioned than in Italy. Women in the city of L’Aquila sent Marinetti a protest letter, and the mayor of Naples went so far as to proclaim that “the Angels in Paradise eat nothing but vermicelli with tomato sauce.” (Marinetti later retorted that this was simply proof of “the unappetizing monotony of Paradise and of the life of the Angels.”) But Futurism wasn’t unpopular, and the pasta ban had ardent advocates of its own. Italian writer Marco Ramperti, for example, lambasted the beloved repast in a highly imaginative op-ed.

“[Pasta] puffs out our cheeks like grotesque masks on a fountain, it stuffs our gullets as if we were Christmas turkeys, it ties up our insides with its flabby strings; it nails us to the chair, gorged and stupefied, apoplectic and gasping, with [a] sensation of uselessness …” he wrote. “Our thoughts wind round each other, get mixed up and tangled like the vermicelli we’ve taken in.”

The Movement Loses Steam

Marinetti collected the best testimonies from scientists, chefs, and literary firebrands like Ramperti and reproduced them in 1932’s La Cucina Futurista (“The Futurist Cookbook”), which also contained Futurist recipes and instructions for hosting various kinds of Futurist dinner parties. But the 1930s were an exceptionally tumultuous decade for the country—which faced the Great Depression, Adolf Hitler’s growing influence, a war with Ethiopia, the Spanish Civil War, and eventually World War II—and Italian citizens were focused less on what they were eating and more on simply eating.

Two Neapolitan boys eating plates of pasta, date unknown.Bain News Service, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Furthermore, Futurism soon ran afoul of fascism. In 1937, Hitler decried modern art as “degenerate,” anti-nationalist, and somehow inherently Jewish. Though Marinetti spoke out against these associations, anti-Semitism had already infected Italy, and fascists started condemning the Futurist movement. Since Mussolini was courting Hitler as an ally, his regime’s ties to Futurism could easily have become a political liability. In 1939, when Marinetti published a fiery denial of Hitler’s accusations in a Futurist journal called Artecrazia, the government forced it to shutter.

So, by the 1940s, Marinetti was no longer spewing consistent vitriol against pasta, Il Duce was no longer supporting the Futurist movement, and the world at large was consumed with much greater threats than linguini-induced languor. And if Marinetti ever entertained fantasies about resurrecting the cause after the war, he never got the chance—he died of a heart attack in December 1944, just months before the deaths of both Mussolini and Hitler the following April.