An Ode to the McDonald’s Happy Meal Box

The Joy and Wonder of Iconic Branding

“Five minutes until dinner is ready,” the wife announces to the family. The clock starts ticking, and it’s game time. On defense, an energetic toddler and his newborn brother; on offense, a sleep-deprived mother and her husband. Place your bets now, folks. It’ll be over in a matter of minutes.

The toddler makes the first move. He pushes a plastic tub of building blocks across the floor, blocking the entry to the kitchen. “Legos? Legos? Legos?” he asks continually, attacking his father both mentally and physically. It’s the toddler’s signature play, often overused but very effective. “Legos! Legos! Legos!” he repeats louder and louder.

The husband bobs and weaves between shouted demands and cluttered toys. “Not now, buddy, we’re about to eat dinner.” Legos! “Come on, let’s wash your hands.” Legos! “No, no, it’s time to eat.” Legos! The husband reaches down, but the toddler takes a dive and rolls onto the rug. “Get up now,” he says sternly, and the child responds with a twenty foot dash to the couch on the other side of the room.

The baby screams from the Pack ‘n Play, and the mother rushes down the hall. He may be tiny, but his shrill declarations are deep, crisp, and persistent; a ringing that can penetrate his parents’ skulls, sending stress signals through their nervous system and permeate their bones. It’s an amazing natural talent, which he exercises multiple times daily. “I’ve got him!” she yells to her husband. “You just get the other one.”

Then out of nowhere, a black Labrador runs down the steps, dodging the father and toddler, and circles around the coffee table twice with speed not often seen in the house. “Shit! I forgot to feed the dog,” the husband exclaims.

With two minutes remaining, the baby hand off occurs. Wife passes newborn to husband, trading for toddler and dog bowls. Husband inserts a milk bottle in the baby’s mouth. “Burp cloth!” wife warns, and husband just barely makes the catch at his head, proceeds to place the hand towel over his shoulder, and plants the ‘sit down’ at the kitchen table. Wife then drops the dog bowls off at the counter and successfully buckles the toddler into the high chair for the extra point.

Tonight will be a different, however. It’s the husband’s turn to provide the meal. And as I drive home from the office, I desperately search out my windshield for the answer to the ultimate evening question: What’s for dinner? I tell people that I’m not good at cooking. My usual line, “I can do pizza rolls, bagel bites, frozen pizza, or pancakes,” is a lie. The truth is that I just don’t want to learn. Perhaps this ignorance could be blamed on my parents (my father’s line was, “What do you want for dinner? Pizzachickenhamburger?” as if it was all one word, one option, one code that meant “I’m in charge, so we are eating fast food”). Yet, in the end, I’m the one searching last minute on the road of desperation, knowing I must walk through that door at home with either food in my hand or a plan.

Suddenly, I see it. A glimmer in the distance, the glowing sign in the setting sun; those golden arches that tell me, “Hey, Todd. It’s going to be all right. We invented the Big Mac. Nobody will judge you here.” So I pull into the drive thru lane and shout into a tiny speaker.

“I’d like a McDouble cheeseburger, a quarter pounder meal, and a four-piece chicken kid’s meal with french fries and Gogurt.” This is America, the land of opportunity, and I just ordered my family processed meat, salt packets, and a tube of lukewarm bacteria. But if I told you that I wouldn’t do it again, that would be another lie. It’s all about convenience, which I believe is the #1 customer benefit that consumers will pay for hand over fist. Convenience will always beat quality, loyalty, and overall enjoyment.

Now usually, I receive the kid’s meal in a paper sack with the rest of the food. This time is special. The lady at the window hands me a wet 44oz cup, then a brown greasy bag, and then a bright red box with a smile on it. A sensation develops — a tingle in my belly drives itself upward to my lungs and produces a hearty laugh from the chest that leaves my head bobbing along. “I got it!” I say to the cashier. “Okay, all right. Thank you!” And I hand her a twenty dollar bill and drive away. It’s been years, since I’ve seen this box. I still remember putting my tiny fingers in between those yellow handles at the top, caressing the clean cut edges at the folds, wondering what could be inside. Even after finishing the meal, I’d carry the empty box around the McDonald’s Play Place, as if it was some kind of award. Actually it was better than an award, it was a happy meal.

When I get home, I rush to open the door leading from the garage, and my son comes running down the hall. “Hallow daddy! Hallow!”

“Look what I got,” I say, lifting the happy meal box above his head.

His eyes widen, his jaw loosens, and his jagged teeth come into full view. With arms held high, he bellows his deepest tone, “French fries!” And he gets into a giggle fit, the kind that shakes his insides like a soda can; he hardly breathes, he barely stands, until it turns into forceful coughs. Then he recovers and says, “Ay fine. French fries.”

It’s amazing what this little red box can do to a human being. By sight alone, it invoked similar responses from both a toddler and an adult. You can draw a smile on a box, but you can’t truly convey my son’s immediate sense of joy in a picture. How do you illustrate that sound, his deep bellow? What shape is it? What’s the color of laughter? Yet that’s what they did. They created a simple two-tone box that relieved us of all our worries.

I remember Soon Yu’s keynote presentation, Creating Iconic Advantage at the 2016 PDMA Annual Conference. He explained that iconic products seem to have a “magic power” over the generic. “They are distinct, relevant, and universal…with a unique signature that speaks to the brand.”

The signature here is obvious. The style and presentation is simple, but it creates a recognizable silhouette with the two golden arch handles at the top of the box. The curved drawing on the front is placed perfectly, generating a smiling face with the golden arches above — the universal image of happiness. Simplicity wins again. There are several different happy meal food variations you can order, but if it’s served in this box, that smile tells each child, “It’s gonna be good.”

As I ponder these thoughts, my wife asks me, “Do you have any cash on hand?” And then I realize that I had given the cashier a twenty dollar bill. I had been so excited about the damn box that I drove off without receiving the change. Between the remaining $9.53 and free publicity I’ve provided McDonald’s with this blog post, I’d say they owe me at least another happy meal. I’m looking forward to it.

“The Happiest Meal” | Photo courtesy of McDonald’s.