Ah, McDonald's. The butt of many an American joke and some would say, the large butt of America. I get to travel with some of my kids out into the community. Every community has a McDonald's, as it turns out (except, notably our neighboring state capitol of Montpelier). McDonald's is a great place to take kids; they tend to be rather clean, have ample bathrooms, you can loiter, you can make someone extremely happy for 99 cents. But those toys. Like a woodpecker to a rotting tree, my kid made a beeline to the toy case. What the hell is with those toys!? More after the jump.
A few years ago I got a happy meal for myself at the drive thru, as I desperately wanted fries and a cheeseburger . . . and a Hello Kitty watch. Tragically, for me, despite identifying the gender of the recipient as a girl, I got a stupid Cars toy. Jilted by my own sexism, expecting the hello kitty watch was for girls (ok, they were probably just out or not paying attention), I was crushed to have such a missed opportunity. Don't judge, but I'm in my 20's. How does McDonald's still have such incredible power over me? Sure, I've read Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation and he talks extensively about brand loyalty and creating customers for life by grabbing them young. But, my god, this kid was enchanted. By crappy smurfs reboot toys-- that might be a little of my own projection.
The moment I mentioned that we would be spending our time at McDonald's the question came, "Can I get a happy meal?" A solemn, "No," was my reply. As if wiped from memory, when we arrived in the parking lot, "Can I get a happy meal?" Again, a stoic response from me, "No, you can't get a happy meal." Upon opening the door, bless his soul for trying, "Can I get a happy meal?" Ignoring the question I asked back, "What would you like? A cheeseburger?" Finally, a deviation, "A cheeseburger with extra pickles!"
As we stood in line waiting to place the order, a minute tug at my wrist, "Can I go look at the toys?". For god's sake! Now, please understand, the toys were placed in a case (a CASE, really) built into a brick pillar, just behind where we were standing. I obliged the child by allowing him to look at the toys as I ordered and waited for the food. That kid stood there gazing deeply into the eyes of Smurfette and Gargamel (those are in the new one, right?) for five or six minutes. Five or six minutes. If you have kids or have ever sat behind one at an IHOP, you know that full engagement in almost anything for five or six minutes is an eternity. When I walked over and asked the kiddo to pick a place to sit, he turned, laughed, smiled and gushed, "I just love the cool toys!"
That in and of itself, is miraculous. A school aged kid was so mesmerized by what he could not have, that he lived vicariously by gazing into the plastic glazing of their eyes. But here's the kicker, the tidbit that made me think, golly, I really need to be documenting this lunacy. We were playing the classic, if not ignominiously named, card game WAR. To be fair, the kiddo didn't fully understand the game and at random points he would ask, "Did I win?" and "Is the game over?" as he did not understand that one of us had to run out of cards. Despite this, he appeared to be having a blast and distracted from our therapeutic conversation. Suddenly, we locked eyes and he did not lay out his next card. An awkward moment came and went. "Can I go look at the toys?" Seriously? We were seated behind the brick pillar. He couldn't see the toys. But using his superpower, which I can only liken to how sharks sense electromagnetic fields, this child could sense that the only thing between his body and sweet, sweet blue plastic goodness was brick and mortar. Obviously, not being a cruel meany, I again relinquished. He leapt down and raced around the pillar . . . and stood there, googly eyed, again transfixed. A mere two or three minutes later, he returned to his seat and played his next card, barely acknowledging his absence. And then about ten minutes later, he did it again. As we were leaving, he raced back and disappeared behind the pillar one last time, as if say goodbye. An end to the fleeting, ersatz affair.
This phenomenon amazed me! What pull, what drag, what tug. What leads to this kind of dedication? I think I know, but it still floored me to see it in action. McDonald's has done several things that work incredibly well in psychology; hit up a group who have no ties to 'their' money, offer items present in popculture, offer things for a limited time, offer things with multiple options thereby creating a collector habit and an intermittent schedule of reinforcement, and pair it with the joy of enriched flour and grease (you can get chocolate milk and apple slices, too--but why would you? For fun, also google 'happy meal toy ban' to enlighten yourself). As a kid, I remember wanting particular toys and being disappointed when I got a duplicate, thereby inviting me to return (or, more accurately, bother and annoy my poor parents until they relented) and try again. These principles also work rather well for adults as it turns out, remember teenie beanie babies in happy meals? All this has left me wondering . . . do I get a hankering for McDonald's hamburgers more than Wendy's because I myself longed for the happy meal Barbie?