Today the new McDonald's Happy Meal mascot, Happy, officially enters the U.S. market. Born in France in 2009, McDonald's says the anthropomorphized box "brings fun and excitement to kids’ meals, while also serving as an ambassador for balanced and wholesome eating." Despite purportedly noble aspirations, though, Happy is entering the country bruised and beleaguered.
On Monday, U.S. McDonald's shared a preview of the character on Twitter. The now-infamous proclamation seemed simple enough. "Say hello to our newest friend, Happy!" The real impetus of the widespread fallout to the unveiling was the following image of Happy, which was attached to the tweet:
As you might imagine, the people of the United States said more than hello to Happy.
Just reading the first 15 responses on Twitter, of thousands: "That! Is Scary!" "What the fuck is that creature?" "Goodbye"; "Oh, this was a mistake, McDonald's"; "Why is he in pain?" "This looks like the monster that killed my uncle"; "A McStake"; "This looks so scary"; "The new Happy Meal box has two divots on top for holding human eyeballs"; "Oh God, who thought this was a good idea?" "Terrifying"; "Oh fuck no"; "That is not right with God"; "Ah"; "It's the meal that eats you."
A McDonald's spokeswoman responded in a statement with dry confidence: "Not all comments reflect the broader view." Roughly translated, haters are going to hate.
As the people hated, the people shared Happy's image and talked of him. The Internet has no soul, and the only way to weather its hostility is to be strong. If you can turn that hostility in your favor, you do it. McDonald's tweeted this sanguine, unapologetic image the next day:
So, you see, Happy relishes hatred. It's what he lives for. It makes him stronger. Now there are two of him. Great work, Twitter.
After taking France, Happy spread to some other parts of Europe and South America before his U.S. unveiling this week. What McDonald's knows is that the country is going to love Happy. They do not need to apologize for a botched introduction. It probably was actually not a botched introduction at all, but a solid exercise in trolling. By Tuesday morning, at least 20 news outlets had reported on Happy and our terror. At Bloomberg: "McDonald’s Happy Meal Character Scares Social-Media Users." At Time: "McDonald’s Just Introduced an Absolutely Terrifying New Happy Meal Mascot." At The Washington Post: "The Terrifying McDonald’s Happy Meal Mascot Is a Hideous Demon Creature." And so on. If he were nice-looking, no one would've cared, except to indict McDonald's for marketing to kids.
In order for him to spread organically, McDonald's wanted us to feel like we were better than Happy; that we'd outsmarted their marketing. So they put out this knowingly terrifying image. It has the air of a D-list celebrity leaking a homely sex tape. The box-man's giant, realistic teeth upset us, and his prominent lower eyelids inspired distrust, even fear. But he made us feel something, and that's what matters.
In reality, most renderings of Happy convey every virtue that endears people to Despicable Me's Minions and Disney's princesses, including the wide-eyed babyfacedness that people perceive in research studies as congenial, vulnerable, and "less likely to be guilty of crimes." This is the Happy we can expect to see in commercials and future promotions. Here he is in a popular French commercial, scientifically engineered to be adored.
"As parents and kids get to know Happy," McDonald's told me in a stock response to my insightful inquiry into their marketing moves here, "we believe they’ll find that Happy is about making wholesome food choices like fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy fun for kids." I heard cackling as I read that. But when I turned around there was no one behind me.
In March of 2012, McDonald’s did begin automatically including apple slices in every Happy Meal. And with Happy's introduction, the company is also announcing that it will soon offer strawberry-flavored Go-Gurt in Happy Meals. Go-Gurt, for the uninitiated, is low-fat yogurt loaded with sugar that one consumes by sucking it from a tube. But there are worse things a kid can eat. And McDonald's specifically commission General Mills to make this Go-Gurt with 25 percent less sugar than its conventional Yoplait Go-Gurt tubes, which is thoughtful and great, really.
Happy's introduction also comes on the heels of the unsolicited resurgence of Ronald McDonald last month, when the company announced the mascot will take an active role on social media for the first time. Having faded from view in recent years after criticism for overt marketing to children, McDonald's unveiled the latest iteration of Ronald, shown here. Ronald is so 2014 that he hangs out in places with exposed brick walls and hardwood floors.
McDonald's believes that the menu it offers is healthy enough that it can unabashedly market to kids again. In addition to the apples, salads, and yogurt, starting later this year McDonald’s will only promote milk, juice, and water (not soda) as beverage choices with Happy Meals on its menu boards and advertisements.
It's easy and fun to hate on McDonald's. The restaurant is usually the first place we call by name as an epitome of bad eating. Without implying that McDonalds' fare is a paragon of nutritiousness, it really is moving in the right direction faster than the other major fast-food chains. Places like KFC and Taco Bell are basically parodying the genre. McDonald's isn't creating Double Downs or advocating we take up a fourth meal. What it is doing is giving us divisively memetic cartoon characters whose stated purpose is to draw attention to a balanced diet. For almost every American kid, that includes some amount of some kind of fast food. So, pick our battles. The red box with polarizing eyes won this one.