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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.

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See more photos by Maribel Diaz