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The Daily Need

In defense of the evil, awful Happy Meal toy

Double trouble: Madame Alexander's Big Bad Wolf as the Grady Twins of "Shining" fame. Photo: Maribel Diaz

It’s been a sad few years for Happy Meal toys.

First they were effectively banned in one county in California. Then a consumer group threatened to sue McDonald’s if the company didn’t stop selling the toys. Then there was the complaint from Devo about the band’s signature hat as worn by tiny “New Wave Nigel,” and the complaint about “the horrifying spectacle of a man engulfed in flames” (It was the Human Torch!), and the one about the three little pigs who were apparently grunting obscenities.

And now a San Francisco Board of Supervisors committee wants to outlaw the toys too.

The reason, of course, is that the toys lure “unsuspecting little children,” in the words of one group, to eat junk food. The kids go googly-eyed for the latest Star Wars mini-skateboard and beg their parents to take them to McDonald’s, where they proceed to eat nearly half their Recommended Daily Allowance of calories in about seven minutes. This is obviously true — who hasn’t experienced this scenario, either as child or parent? — but it is also beside the point.

The problem with this argument is that it casts the child both as the innocent — helpless under the spell of the diabolical Shrek toy — and as the tyrant — getting whatever it wants from its cowering parents.

In its cease-and-desist letter to McDonald’s in 2008, the Center for Science in the Public Interest wrote that the company’s Happy Meal toy campaigns have “the effect of conscripting America’s children into an unpaid drone army of word-of-mouth marketers.”

That is a terrifying image. And I resolve to begin stuffing my pockets with Chicken McNuggets tomorrow on the off chance that I am accosted by a roving army of child drones. Except I don’t think the children are the drones in this scenario.

Parents who consider this a valid and regular food option for their children may have a lot of reasons for thinking so. It’s cheap. It’s easy. It’s available everywhere. Kids like it (or have been taught to). And, most importantly, I suspect, adults eat this way themselves, both at McDonald’s and elsewhere. But the point is: There is a whole bouncy castle full of issues to tackle here. The toys seem a bizarre, and somewhat cowardly, place to start. (And San Francisco’s Mayor Gavin Newsom has already said he will veto the attempted ban.)

For instance, have you seen a Happy Meal lately? Photographer Sally Davies spent 180 days looking at one, and by the end, it appeared almost exactly as happy as it had on day one. Yum.

The more I researched them, in fact, the toys seemed to be the only spark of real joy in an otherwise dim experience. I was surprised to discover, for example, that Madame Alexander, the high-end doll designer, had released several series of cute and pleasantly creepy Happy Meal characters based on fairy tales and the Wizard of Oz. And I was oddly charmed by the work photographers across the Internet have done capturing the funny little faces that populate this caloric underworld. Maybe I was unduly affected by the Island of Misfit Toys as a kid, or maybe I am just nostalgic for a time when we could proudly wear our Burger King crowns while screaming off the high dive, walk home from school on our own, and ride in the front seat of the station wagon while playing with our favorite choking hazard, but the whole thing kind of gets to me.

Go, toys.

See more photos by Maribel Diaz


  • Susan

    I just go through the drive through and buy the stupid toy w/out the food. Yes they are cheap stupid toys but at least my kids don’t eat the food.

  • Stuydaze

    Hehe. After a month of buying awful, greasy spongy burgers to help my neice complete her happy meal toy collection, an employee, seeing our distress every time we looked at the menu, intuted what was happening and let us know that the toys were available for sale without the food.

  • Edith Juanita Brown

    Does anybody remember those toys in that gooey, sweet, popcorn and peanuts treat called Cracker Jacks? Have they been banned?

  • Becky Blitch

    In the mid 80′s, there was a Happy Meal toy set of Muppet Babies (link: ). I disliked the food even as a tot, but I went crazy for Miss Piggy in a little pink car. Even back then my dad would just buy the toy sans food. They brought me so much joy, and seemed to capture my too-brief childhood innocence so perfectly that I paid a rather embarrassing sum to recreate the set (the originals having been misplaced over the decades) just a few years ago on eBay. Every time I look at them I smile. So yes: yay toys!

  • Anonymous

    what about cerial with toys in it??

  • Tina

    My problem with these toys are simple. Where do they end up? In a landfill. When cleaning out the toys and junk that accumulates and their is always a need to clean out the weeds. Where do these little toys end up? Do you keep them as a valuable toy? I would say in most cases no. And in our consumer driven society we should really look at all of this disposable junk. This little toy is one of the biggest landfill occupants by far!!!!