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Have It Your Way: The Evolution of the Kids' Meal

Fast food restaurants attempt to make Happy Meals seem a little happier.

In 1979, McDonalds sold its first Happy Meal in the United States. By pairing deep-fried, sauce-slathered foods with an unending parade of new toys, McDonalds exploded America's junk food audience. Fast-food joints spent the next three decades competing to capitalize on the kid market, then trying to make that look less bad.

In recent years, that dance has gotten trickier. Parental and government concerns over the aggressive marketing of fast food to kids have reached a boiling point. McDonalds has responded by downsizing its fries and letting kids choose white or chocolate milk instead of soda. Jack in the Box stopped pairing toys with its kids' meals. Burger King rolled out apples cut to look like french fries. This month, the King upped its feel-good game: it is now pairing its kids' meals with kid-friendly charitable donations.

When kids approach the Burger King counter, they'll now choose between more than just a small hamburger (260 calories) and a four-piece set of chicken tenders (190 calories)—they will also elect to donate one cent of their purchase to help animals, the environment, or educational efforts. “Research keeps telling us that kids today are more aware, more interested and engaged in their environment," says Jon Banks of Pitch, the agency hired to help the fast food chain rethink its kids' meal. "We wanted to empower kids to choose their own issues... The consumer ordering environment provides that opportunity to have this conversation.”

A brief history of the fast-food industry's attempts to win the kid market and still look good:

1979. The Happy Meal launches in the United States. Almost instantly, it is used to sell something else. An early toy tie-in promotes Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

1990. Burger King launches its ''Kids Club'' campaign to help appeal to consumers age two to 13. In the first six months, 1.6 million children join the club for the newsletters, promotional toys, and child-sized meals. ''Children are important because they not only represent a significant percentage of our customers, but they also have an incredible influence on what fast-food restaurant their parents will choose," a Burger King spokesman says at the time.

1992. McDonalds fields parental backlash after using the Happy Meal as a vehicle to promote Tim Burton's Batman Returns, which The New York Times describes as a "violent, sexually suggestive movie" in which "kids are abandoned, kidnapped and threatened with death." A McDonalds spokesman says the promotion "wasn't intended to encourage young kids to see the movie."

1993. McDonalds begins distributing nutritional pamphlets with its Happy Meals in association with the American Dietetic Association. The pamphlet tells kids that meat "can make it easier to do things like climb higher and ride your bike farther." The claim drew opposition from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

1999. Burger King begins offering the "Big Kids' Meal" for older—or just hungrier—adolescents; McDonalds counters a couple years later with its "Mighty Kids Meal."

2002. A group of teenagers sue McDonalds, claiming the chain's youth-targeted marketing contributed to their obesity.

2003. McDonald's begins rolling out healthier Happy Meal side options in select countries.

2006. Disney severs its promotional deal with McDonalds, after a decade of offering toys in Happy Meals pegged to its films.

2010. San Francisco passes a law regulating kids' meals, requiring them to contain fewer than 600 calories and 640 milligrams of sodium in order to be paired with a toy.

2011. The federal government attempts to encourage purveyors of fast food to agree to voluntary guidelines for selling food to kids. Industry giants like McDonalds, Burger King, Kraft, and PepsiCo respond by forming The Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative and The Sensible Food Policy Coalition, arguing that they're capable of regulating themselves. Several chains make minor menu changes to their kids' meals.

Burger King launches its pro-social initiative. "We're all in favor of charity, and it's nice of BK to donate what amounts to something like a third of one percent of the meal's cost, but I can guarantee you that the Web site kids will be directed to will contain yet more marketing of BK products," The New York Times' Mark Bittman weighs in on the campaign. He's right.

2012. McDonalds will launch an Olympic-themed campaign focusing on "balanced eating and fun play." U.S. Olympic swimmer Dana Torres will serve as the global ambassador for the campaign.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Hakan Dalstrom

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