The Happy Meal itself is a massive marketing triumph whose 40-plus years of success relies on a couple of key strategies. One is right there in the product’s name: The fast-food giant has long offered parents the proposition that they could buy a little bit of happiness for their kids for only a couple of bucks — even as the product became a symbol of the toll fast-food was taking on children’s’ health. And as generations of kids who loved those shiny plastic toys grew up to be the parents driving the minivan themselves, the Golden Arches leaned on nostalgia to keep Mom and Dad buying Happy Meals for their own offspring.
Now, with the new box geared to adults, McDonald’s is merely cutting kids out of that equation. Grown-ups can buy a bit of childhood fun — that frisson of excitement that came with unearthing your prize from its fry-scented container, the heady sense of ownership that came from having a whole box that was yours and yours only — for themselves, not just for darling little Hudson and Mia.
McDonald’s isn’t hiding its motives. “We’re taking one of the most nostalgic McDonald’s experiences and literally repackaging it in a new way that’s hyper-relevant for our adult fans,” Tariq Hassan, McDonald’s USA chief marketing and customer experience officer, said in a news release.
Jenna Barclay, a content creator who shares videos on TikTok and Instagram that tap into nostalgia for the fashions and pop culture of the late 1990s and 2000s, says the pull of the past is strong, particularly for millennials like her. Products that recall it have an appeal that goes beyond a mere craving for a burger. “We are a point where childhood simplicity is gone from people’s lives — we’re longing for that feeling of comfort and a time when things felt easy, before stressful jobs and mortgages and kids.”
Objects and experiences from youth can be powerful talismans. Barclay, who spoke to me from her childhood bedroom, where she was surrounded by mementos, loved seeing a VHS tape of the 1995 teen movie “Clueless” that she used to watch over and over. “It reminds me of how much I loved those things, how passionate I was about them, and how I used to get so excited about the little things,” she says. Many of her followers tell her about similar feelings. One woman, she recalled, bought a Bonnie Bell lipgloss on eBay for $38 just because it reminded her of her middle-school self.
Yuping Liu-Thompkins, a marketing professor at Old Dominion University, says what companies that employ nostalgia are really doing is filling an even deeper human need. “As humans, we need connection and stability, and a lot of that is rooted in our pasts,” she says. By evoking memories, “they are drawing on that sense of wanting to be connected, which is very useful as a marketing tool.”
Nostalgia can also has practical appeal for many companies, notes Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Selling something to a customer is easier if you don’t have to introduce the product in the first place, he notes. “Like the ‘Top Gun’ sequel,” he says. “No one has to make people aware of what ‘Top Gun’ is — so marketers can spend less because the awareness already exists.”
I thought I would give the new meal a try to see if I could hot-tub-time-machine myself back to a simpler time myself. It helped, I thought, that I happened to be staying in my childhood home, and the nearest McDonald’s was the very one that had supplied me with so many dinners (and Hello Kitty toys) after ballet rehearsals and play practices. So I cruised into the drive-through in the familiar parking lot and ordered the nuggets, since the other option — the Big Mac — was never something I ate as a kid. And I did feel that old mini-rush of excitement as I tore into the bag to see which figurine I had gotten (yay, it was Grimace, who was my second-favorite, after the Hamburglar!) and sipped my Dr. Pepper (a rare treat these days).
But as I parked the box on the passenger seat next to me, the tableau was all wrong: The cheerily colored packaging sat next to my phone, which was pinging with alerts from incoming work Slack messages and texts from my husband reminding me to pick up cat litter. It also shared the seat with a pair of work gloves I had thrown there after doing outdoor chores. An NPR news report about Ukraine was on the radio.
Maybe it was because I had spent the morning analyzing the mind tricks that the Golden Arches’ marketing wizards were trying to play on me, but I just didn’t feel that escape from adulthood I’d hoped for. And my feelings about those nuggets inside just confirmed my suspicion that my inner child wasn’t coming out to play, no matter how hard McD’s tried to lure her out.
Sorry, Grimace, but these days, I just want a salad.