© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

St. Louis Native Helped Create Happy Meals

McDonald's Chicken McNugget Happy Meal

Two things are certain: Kids like toys and nearly every story has a St. Louis connection. Case in point: The genesis of McDonald's Happy Meal.

In the 1970s, St. Louis native Joe Johnston went to work for a Cleveland marketing agency. That's where he had a hand in changing fast food.

"It actually started in an era when kids didn't want to go to McDonald's," Johnston told "St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh on Tuesday. "I know that's hard to imagine, but children didn't like those little dry hamburgers. The challenge was how do we get these young families with these little kids to come to McDonald's?"

The group started by changing how the food was packaged.

"At that time, the only hamburger in a box was the Big Mac, so we put all the hamburgers in boxes and printed circus trains and things on them," Johnston said. "They were using brown paper bags, so we changed to white paper bags and printed games and puzzles and so forth on the sacks."

McDonald's introduced the changes in its Cleveland stores, dubbing the new kid-friendly food Fun Meals. The concept didn't catch on at the corporate level, though.

"The kids loved all of that, but our conclusion at the end of the research is this isn't really going to work unless you put a toy in the bag. At that point, that was not possible, price-wise."

A couple of years later, McDonald's revamped Fun Meals, adding toys.

"McDonald's was able to start buying toys from China at less than a penny apiece," Johnston said. "So our Fun Meal became the Happy Meal."

In 2012, the fast food industry spent $4.6 billion to advertise its products, mostly to children and teens, according to a report by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity

Fast food restaurants have come under fire as concern about childhood obesity grows. Since 2010, the Rudd Center reports that fast food restaurants like McDonald's and Chick-fil-A have introduced healthier kids' meal options, but Burger King also introduced a bacon sundae and Taco Bell added Doritos Locos Tacos.

"A couple of years ago, I testified for the Center for Science in the Public Interest in their lawsuit against McDonald's for creating childhood obesity," Johnston said. 

Toy safety also has been a recurring concern. Last week, McDonald's recalled about 2.5 million Hello Kitty lollipop whistles. The toys were distributed in Happy Meals and were recalled because they can pose a choking hazard to young children.

Johnston, who now lives in Nashville, returned to St. Louis this week to promote his book "Necessary Evil: Settling Missouri with a Rope and a Gun," which chronicles the implications of vigilantism in the state. Johnston also is a Grammy-nominated music writer and producer.

Stay Connected