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"E.T." Happy Meal

Happy Meal celebrates 30 years of serving up McMemories

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FARGO -- It's easy to understand why the McDonald's Happy Meal has been such an iconic success. After all, it's a brightly colored box filled with yummy, processed food and a toy. What's not for a 5-year-old to love?

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This year that little box (it can also come in a bag) is celebrating its 30th birthday.

The happiness started when a McDonald's regional advertising manager named Dick Barns commissioned the first Happy Meal, calling it "McDonaldland Fun-to-go." Since 1979, when the first national Happy Meal program hit stores, it has become a bona fide chunk of Americana and sold billions of the meals aimed at kids.

As such, it's a childhood memory for droves of Americans, including plenty of folks from our area.

"I guess since it was such a rare occasion, I did get happy," says Brad Meier, whom I ran into on Broadway in Fargo. "Yeah, the meals made me happy. It worked. McDonald's worked. It hasn't worked for a while for me."

Meier was born in Fargo but now lives in Beijing. And, in case you're wondering, yes, he says they have Happy Meals in Beijing, too.

Odile Streed, who teaches marketing at Concordia College, says the invention of the Happy Meal was genius.

"(It's) fun and it's affordable, and it's special for kids," Streed says.

Perhaps for the parents, too.

Don Hess of Fargo says the Happy Meal has probably been so successful because "it's like entertainment and a meal all in one package. Timmy can just have his burger and play by himself and leave mom and dad to what they're doing."

Of course, a Happy Meal is nothing without the toy.

McDonald's has featured a wide range of toys, from simple balls to small plush animals to movie tie-ins, such as toys from the Disney movie "Aladdin." Sometimes, the fast-food chain even offers gender-specific items like Barbies for girls or Batman toys for boys.

"Everybody likes to get a free gift," says Streed, whose doctoral dissertation was related to fast-food franchising. She says the toy was "absolutely" important to the success of the Happy Meal.

"That's what made it special for the kid," she says.

And those toy memories certainly can stick around. That's true for Megan Bollman of Fargo.

"You always got the little toys. And I think my favorite was - they used to do the miniature Barbie dolls, and I wanted to collect them all," says Bollman, a part-time office assistant and full-time mom. "I mean, that was the biggest excitement. I mean, you got to go eat dinner out, which was always fun, but then you came away with a toy."

Silver Moon chef Emily Hess says, "The toy was the seller usually, especially if it was a girly toy like a Barbie or something."

And Justin Kittelson, second assistant manager at the Main Avenue McDonald's, remembers getting his Happy Meal box and "looking for my toy right away."

The toys "would get lost so fast in the car, you know," Meier says. "I'm sure the '75 Mustang that my family sold in '82, it probably had four or five Happy Meal toys in the bottom of it somewhere."

Patrick Hess, a Fargo computer technician, remembers going to McDonald's when the store was featuring a particular puppy toy.

"(My) dad got us all together and we drove over (there), and he came out and he didn't get any Happy Meals so he didn't get the toy," Hess says. "And we were like, 'Well, where's the toy?' ... At the time it was so crushing to not get the plush puppy."

"I think he was just absent-minded about it, you know, and then I think he was just like 'Oh, I can't believe I forgot that,' " Hess says.

Dad did eventually go back and get one.

"He went and he got one of them, and it wasn't the one we wanted, but we didn't say anything," Hess says.

But it would seem that Happy Meals don't just draw in the kiddos; they also create long-lasting relationships with the business.

Streed says that when a child grows up and remembers the Happy Meal, it's a happy memory, "so they're going to take their kids there."

"For a brand, it's important to hook the customer early," she says.

Of course, not everyone is happy with their McDonald's memories.

"I'm from Valley City, and we didn't have a McDonald's there, so I remember road trips to Minneapolis, and I would always get the Chicken McNugget meal. And now, looking back, that's really scary," says Molly McLain of Fargo. "I guess the bird industry or the meat industry has gotten just very bizarre, I feel, kind of ... I'm kind of scared that I ate a lot of Chicken McNugget meals."

In recent years, McDonald's began offering alternatives in Happy Meals, catering to concerns about the healthfulness of the meals. The kiddos can get fruit juice rather than soda or apples with caramel sauce instead of french fries.

Regardless of the meal's health appeal, much of the allure of the Happy Meal might just hinge on that toy. Hey, there's nothing like good, old American marketing.

"I bugged my dad to buy that (puppy) toy, and he bought it," Patrick Hess says. "I think they know if kids are interested in a product, they'll annoy the parents enough to go there. Well, I mean, they're reasonably priced, too. ... It's plenty for a child, you know, and you get a toy. Who doesn't want a toy? Perfect marketing."

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