Updated: Nov 29
This article serves partly as a platform for me to discuss my childhood. Proceed with voyeuristic caution.
This is my second piece on fast-food toys. The first, about McDonald's New Food Changeables, is a multimedia extravaganza and a must-read. It wasn't intentional that the entire series thus far focuses on the same fast food chain. I've got article ideas for other great kids' meal promotions in the hopper, so there will be burger-joint variety at some point.
Contrary to popular belief, McDonald's didn't pioneer the concept of the kids' meal. That honor would befall the defunct Burger Chef chain of eateries. The company, which later became part of Hardee's, would offer their revolutionary Funmeal in 1973, five years before Micky D's debuted the Happy Meal. A 1979 lawsuit against McDonald's would prove unfruitful.
McDonald's took the concept of the kids' meal and ran with it like no one else, often securing desirable licensed properties to ensnare youngsters, and by extension their parents. Generally speaking, McDonald's had a monopoly on the best fast-food toys. There was the occasional Burger King gem, but the Golden Arches was number one for awesome lumps of plastic.
On an apparently unrelated front, Nintendo was tops in video game popularity. So when Nintendo and McDonald's worked in conjunction in 1989, the result was unsurprisingly huge. Yes, the superpowers' collective marketing gurus knocked it out of the park when the Super Mario Bros. 3 Happy Meal broadsided kids nationwide. This promotion hit stores and stomachs not-so-coincidentally around the same time as the Nintendo-produced film The Wizard. Starring boy wonder Fred Savage, the movie was primarily an advertising vehicle, which served as the premier of both Super Mario Bros. 3 and the ill-fated Power Glove. This Happy Meal promotion, The Wizard, and The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! airing on TV, worked in tandem to create the perfect storm for all things Mario. (There's more on the Super Mario Bros. Super Show! in a bit.)
Here's the trailer for The Wizard. Keep an eye out for the boom mic in the upper left corner at :55. When a boom mic shot ends up in the trailer, you know you've got a winner on your hands.
As I said at the onset, I'm going to get personal in this one. Keep your handkerchief at the ready, because I want to discuss my lonely childhood. (No siblings here!) My goal is to put this promotion's era into an individual context.
I've always been a Sega fan. I'm pretty sure I had the only Master System in town. Looking back, it truly was a far superior platform in many ways to the Nintendo Entertainment System. However, Sega's edgy marketing tactics that would be firmly in place during the '90s hadn't quite surfaced. It would still be years before school cafeteria disputes over Sega vs. Nintendo. Bottom line: In the late '80s, if you didn't have an NES, you were a playground pariah. Kids would talk about Mario and his ilk, and I would feel like I was missing out. Whenever I went to a friend's house, I would always want to play Nintendo, even if they didn't. I was hungry for some of that NES ambrosia. I sometimes threw a box of Nintendo Cereal System into the cart when my mom went shopping, hoping I would win an NES in the contest. My folks had already bought me a Sega system, and I didn't want to seem ungrateful. I thought if I "just happened to win," I would be in the club without looking like a spoiled brat.
Honestly, I loved my Sega, but I also had a deep-seeded need to feel like I belonged with the social circle at school. I had zero interest in sports, so my clique opportunities were limited as it was. I was into video games, big time. But there was a hurdle: Nintendo's illegal business practices, forcing exclusivity on game publishers, ensured I couldn't identify with any titles other kids were discussing. And vice-versa. As great as the '80s were, they were truly a stigmatizing gaming era.
At the apex of my desperation was the time in third grade, when one of my classmates won a Nintendo in a school drawing (below). I hoped he would just give it to me, as he already had one. To compound the lunacy, I barely knew the kid. I'm not sure how long it took for me to give up on that idea, aside from "too long."
Because of my struggle to fit in with my childhood peers, I will always remember the Super Mario Bros. 3 fervor of '89. But when I got a Game Boy that Christmas, I could finally feel like one of the cool Nintendo kids.
Looking back, the whole thing was ridiculous. Having a Nintendo may in fact have helped me fit in, but being an outsider isn't always bad, and I think it ultimately helped me grow as a person. Plus, Sega Master System games are awesome to this day! I realize now that I just had serious self-esteem issues. (Some might say I've since overcompensated for those.)
The Super Mario Bros. 3 Happy Meal premiums are shown doing their respective things in the following commercial. I must confess I missed this promotion while it was running; I got my pictured toys from a friend a couple of years later. These figures were fairly ambitious for a giveaway, all boasting action features, which typically didn't work as perfectly as the commercial portrayed. I wonder how many tries it took for that Goomba to land on its feet after flipping?
These character likenesses are spot-on in resembling their animated counterparts in the popular Super Mario Brothers Super Show!. The program was hosted by pro-wrestling legend, the late Capt. Lou Albano. Mr. Albano appeared in the live-action role of Mario, and he also voiced the character on the show's cartoon segments. Notice that the commercial above gives Mario no lines whatsoever. McDonald's may have gotten the rights to Nintendo's intellectual property, but Lou Albano couldn't be bought! (Well, he obviously could, because Nintendo hired him. I guess McDonald's didn't deem it necessary to hire Albano in order to sell metric tons of Happy Meals.)
For retrospective purposes, here's the intro to the Super Mario Bros. Super Show!. I used to live for this program, even having my parents tape it for me. Everyone at school watched it, but nobody would admit it. Once you hear the opening rap, it will be forever etched into your brain, so think twice before clicking !
I once worked with a guy during my halcyon employment at Burger King, who remarked to me that the kids' meal toys were just going to get thrown away. He was lamenting it from an environmental perspective, but I think his sentiment carries a certain mystique: Imagine digging through a landfill with some heavy equipment. You produce an imposing hole, perhaps miles deep. With one final, glorious scoop, you unearth a Super Mario Bros. 3 Happy Meal toy. In a way, you would be excavating a memory. In other words, even in the darkest recesses, there may still be a glimmer of joy. If that doesn't stir your very soul, I fear you're already dead inside.