Remember when you were a kid and eating at a fast food restaurant was exciting, instead of today’s guilt and shame associated with sucking on a large Coke and shoving three McDoubles while you sit in your 2001 Honda Accord during your lunch break? Well, a lot of that excitement probably had to do with toys in the Happy Meal box. Sadly, not every toy was made of happiness — some just plain made no sense, and still have us scratching our heads, decades after their release:
Trying to get kids to eat healthy isn’t a new concept for fast food restaurants. Back in the early 1990s, instead of replacing fries with apple slices, McDonald’s figured the easiest way to make kids eat right would be to make anthropomorphic Happy Meal toys of food items.
The FoodFUNdementals series featured a milk carton named Milky, a winking apple named Ruby, a helmet-wearing, wheat bread sandwich named Otis, an ear of corn named Duncan that looks a lot like Wesley Snipes in White Men Can’t Jump, and a T-Bone steak named Slugger. Poor Slugger had sunglasses and a mustache that was equal parts Walter White pre-Heisenberg, the original police sketch of the Unabomber, a 70’s soft core porn star, and your mother’s new boyfriend Chet, whom she met at bingo.
The toys (minus Duncan, who was made for toddlers) featured minuscule notepads, along with pamphlets telling kids how to eat right and be active … despite just consuming a saturated fat-packed meal. Besides, why would McDonald’s use food they don’t actually sell? Most likely, all Slugger did was make parents pine for steak at a much better restaurant.
Tickle Feather Sponge
When the Happy Meal was launched by McDonald’s in 1979, the toys weren’t really perfected yet. Popular toys at this time were a few stencils, a spinning top, a crudely produced eraser shaped like Ronald McDonald, and an oddly sexual sponge "toy" called the Tickle Feather Sponge.
It didn’t have the famous "Mc" in front of it, but it really should have been called the McTickle — that way, McDonald’s would have the rights to the name, instead of whoever coined the term on Urban Dictionary. According to the nostalgia blog Yello80s, the Tickle Feather Sponge was released in Happy Meals in 1982, the same year McDonald’s released plastic replicas of the General Lee from that kid-friendly masterpiece, The Dukes of Hazzard. It was a piece of foam, the whole point of which was seemingly to randomly tickle your friends, but only if they were "sponge worthy." So, mindless starfish and greedy crabs, basically
This wasn’t the only time a tickle feather popped up in a Happy Meal, either. In early-2017, Burger Kings in Israel released meals for adults, with toys (including a sexy feather) to prepare them for Valentine’s Day. At least this time, they were honest about what people would really use it for.
Toothbrush and toothpaste
We can picture how the meeting went in 1983, when someone at the McD’s corporate offices pitched the idea to include a toothbrush and a travel-sized tube of Colgate toothpaste in Happy Meals. "You know how kids love going to the dentist and after their visit they get to pick out their very own toothbrush? We want to recreate that wonderful experience when every child opens their Happy Meal box." Yeah that … didn’t work. Kids don’t want to be reminded of things they hate when about to devour something they love. They might as well have stuck math homework in there too.
McDonald’s was apparently serious about good dental hygiene though — in 1992, they did the exact same thing in Australia, and in 2014, they ran a promotion at their Wisconsin branches, where kids got free toothpaste and toothbrushes just for coming into the restaurant. That’s like going to see the Easter bunny and getting socks instead of chocolate eggs.
American Idol toys
American Idol was a ratings behemoth, a cultural phenomenon … but McDonald’s two (yes, two) attempts to turn the show into a hit Happy Meal were flatter than William Hung singing anything.
The first of these promotions came in 2007, during the show’s peak. The toys included a pair of cheap sunglasses, a piece of plastic which supposedly imitates a microphone headset (for kids too cool to sing into a hairbrush but not too cool to wear plastic on their heads), a mini-guitar without strings, a handheld microphone, a weird clapping machine, and an iPod knockoff that played a few seconds of the American Idol theme. Remember HitClips? It was sort of like that, but you couldn’t change the music, so it was more like a torture device they could’ve used at Guantanamo Bay.
The second round of American Idol toys were released a year later, and were funky figurines that looked like they could be on an animated show in Korea. One toy, called New Wave Nigel, looked oddly familiar, right down to the red flower pot on their head — at the time, there were rumors that the band Devo sued the hamburger giant over stealing the band’s likeness from their famous "Whip It" music video. While those rumors were proven to be false, one look at that cheap doll and … yeah, it’s Devo.
Ronald McDonald glove puppet
Being the face of Happy Meals, Ronald McDonald’s kinda-creepy visage has appeared on all sorts of McDonald’s paraphernalia, like VHS tapes and terrifying masks. The oddest product of all, however, has to be Ronald as a plastic glove puppet.
You know how there are actual warnings on bags saying it’s dangerous to give kids a plastic bag to play with? McDonald’s in the ’70s and ’80s ignored all that, and decided it would awesome to give kids a mini plastic bag, print Ronald (and other McDonaldLand characters) on it, and call it a toy. If you have kids, and they complain about their Happy Meal toy, now you’re free to tell them, "HA. When I was a kid, McDonald’s would just throw a plastic bag in the box, tell us it was a puppet, and when we weren’t busy chocking on it, WE HAD FUN, DAMMIT."
Madame Alexander dolls
Every so often, McDonald’s releases Madame Alexander dolls in their Happy Meals. These creepy little dead-eyed urchins are highly sought after by adult collectors, but Happy Meals are for kids. And do kids really want a doll that looks like it came from their great-grandmother’s curio cabinet? All the dolls are scary i their own way, though one doll from a 2010 promotion is pure nightmare-fuel, especially when viewing it in the plastic bag.
Apparently, this little tyke is "Wendy as the Big Bad Wolf," but it looks more like a little girl trying out a Donnie Darko Frank the Bunny cosplay, only worse than you imagine. If this a doll got out of the toy box and mysteriously ended up on your pillow, watching you sleep, while holding a tiny knife and giggling evilly, you wouldn’t be the least bit shocked.
Air travel can be a lot of fun for kids, especially if they meet a nice flight attendant who hooks them up with a cool pair of pilot’s wings. Sadly, the 1986 McDonald’s Airport promotion is the plastic toy representative of all the negative aspects of flying — delays, having your luggage go missing, bland food, being kicked off due to intentional overbooking, and having a bratty child sit behind you complaining about their crappy Happy Meal toy the entire trip.
McDonald’s Airport featured lame, monochromatic planes and helicopters with the McDonaldLand characters. The toys broke easily when you tried to build them, and apparently you were also supposed to save the box your meal came in, so you could make your own airport playset out of greasy cardboard. If the Wright Brothers had introduced planes like this, we never would’ve started flying.
E.T. movie posters
In the mid-1980s, Happy Meal toys actually started getting pretty decent. In 1985, McDonald’s teamed up with the hottest movie around, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, during the film’s first re-release. However, instead of something cool, like a plastic bike with Elliot and E.T., or maybe a bunch of Reese’s Pieces instead of nuggets, good ol’ McDonald’s thought it would be neat (and cheap) to release … posters.
While kids certainly like posters, they’re nothing like an actual toy in a Happy Meal box. Besides, who thought it would be a good idea to include a paper product inside a box full of greasy food? If a bunch of napkins look like they have inkblot tests on them when they’re tossed in your bag of food, just think how disappointed you would be getting a super cool poster of E.T., only for it to be all stained and smell of french fries. So much for Atari making the dumbest ET tie-in product ever.
Michael Jordan Fitness Fun
The early ’90s was a different time — it wasn’t abnormal for your Little League coach to take you out for a post-game dinner of fast food. ’90s kids were even rewarded with pizza if they read books. Yet, at the same time, fast food companies were trying to get kids to be active, hence the Michel Jordan Fitness Fun playset.
The face on the toys made sense — who didn’t want to Be Like Mike in the early ’90s? The Bulls were the most dominant team in the NBA, and 1992 saw the rise of the Jordan-centric Dream Team. So, a year earlier, McDonald capitalized on MJ’s popularity and released his Fitness Fun toys. These toys were really just poorly made athletic equipment to teach kids that it’s cool to pig out on fries, burgers, chicken nuggets, and Cokes, but only if afterwards, you toss a ball around for a few minutes or attempt to skip rope, using the extremely short and plastic jump rope that was offered.
The Michael Jordan Fitness Fun toys did include some decent items (a certain Grunge writer who wrote this article still has the basketball), but not nearly enough to escape mockery. The weirdest toy in the bunch had to be an awkward 30-second stopwatch that featured Jordan’s grinning mug on it. We highly doubt that kids used the stopwatch to time things of an athletic nature, but rather how long they could keep ten Sour Warheads in their mouth, or how long they could burp for, after chugging an entire can of Crystal Pepsi. You know … fitness.