“Barbie or Hot Wheels?” The History of the Split Promotion Happy Meal

When I set out to write an article about the Happy Meal tiger that has been following me around for nearly twenty years, I had no idea what kind of rabbit hole I would end up falling down. That rabbit hole ended up being the history of split promotion Happy Meals in the USA, and was way more interesting (and difficult!) than I had thought previously. This post isn’t about capitalism (explicitly, at least). It’s not about whether or not McDonald’s is good or evil. What started out as musing about a toy I had as a kid has taken me on a trip around gender binaries and back. This is gonna be a long post, so bear with me.

I will also be referring to split promotion Happy Meals as “gendered Happy Meals.” This is because they have been traditionally known to have a “boy toy” and a “girl toy,” or something that would appeal to each demographic individually as opposed to a more neutral single toy that would appeal to all. (This is something we know to be bullshit, as there is plenty of overlap in what kids play with, and some McDonald’s stores are getting behind ditching the explicit gendering, but for simplicity’s sake I will refer to them as such.)

The first Happy Meal debuted in 1977. It consisted of a burger, fries, packet of cookies, a small drink, and, most importantly, a “surprise gift.” The first toys were simple – the initial promotion consisted of either a “McDoodler” stencil, a “McWrist” wallet, an ID bracelet, a puzzle lock, a spinning top or a McDonaldland-character eraser. The first licensed toys were a promotion in 1979 for Star Trek: The Motion Picture that included a little board game, a bracelet, or even a communicator. In the 1980s, the promotions didn’t appear to be consistent across the chain. Certain regional stores were able to carry toys with a more local interest, and these can be worth significantly more today. Some of my research turned up information on a promotion specific to Sea World of Ohio, as well as The Story of Texas (which appears to be books about the history of the state). There was even a regional promotion that gave out coloring books for Black History Month!   I can’t find any specific information as to what other stores carried when these specific promotions were run, nor do I have any first-hand experience, being born in 1986. The 80s were a big time to “market test” toys regionally that would get national promotions the next year.

Something I noticed looking through the toy promos in the 80s was that the provided toys were all very gender neutral, or leaned heavier on the “boy toy” side. Most promos were focused on the McDonaldland characters, which was a pretty smart way of approaching it. When they partnered with licensed properties, they were all relatively neutral (Lego, Play-Doh, Crayola, the Muppets), properties that appealed to all genders. Occasionally you’d find – for example – a Hot Wheels promotion, or a Real Ghostbusters promotion, but these tended to be “boys properties” with a wide appeal. (I, for one, LOVED RGB as a kid, so to have gotten an Egon in my Happy Meal would have made me super excited!) Movie tie-ins picked up throughout the decade. Though the early 80s had a lot of tie-ins for live action movies like E.T. and Santa Claus the Movie, animated features didn’t pick up until much later. There was a promotion for An American Tail in 1986, and the first Disney promotions appear to be for both the re-release of Bambi and the initial release of Oliver and Company in 1988, though my information may be incomplete.

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In-Store Displays for the Transformers/MLP split. Credit: yello80s.com

The first example of a gendered Happy Meal I could find was a regional promotion in 1985. A test split was done for Transformers and My Little Pony. I wasn’t able to locate a picture of the Transformers toys, but the MLP promotion consisted of bookmarks with charms of the ponies at the end. Not only is this the first example of a split gender happy meal, it appears to be the first promotion that explicitly targeted girls at all. I didn’t find any evidence of there being a promotion for, say, Rainbow Brite or Strawberry Shortcake…in the 80s, at least.

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The six MLP charm/bookmarks. Credit: McD Happy Meal Toy List/oocities.com

The 90s marked a shift in the types of toys found in Happy Meals. They began to move away from more general neutral properties to targeting a split demographic. In 1990, McDonald’s ran a regional test market promotion of a selection of Barbie and Hot Wheels toys. Four of each toy were introduced, and apparently did well enough that in 1991, the promotion was rolled out nationally. The Barbies were molded plastic figurines, while the Hot Wheels were fully functional toys. The “playability” would improve over time, eventually adding rooted brushable hair (1994), posability (also 1994) and occasionally cloth clothing (1996). The Barbie/Hot Wheels promotion is the longest running, having appeared consecutively in national promotions since 1991. McDonald’s also began to step away from having regional promotions at all and began unifying their promotions across franchises. Promotions now had a start and end date, all with the caveat of “while supplies last.”

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The first Barbie/Hot Wheels in store display. Credit: A2Zcapgunandtoys/etsy.com

One thing to note about the split promotions is that if a split promotion occurs, it is almost exclusively to showcase two very different types of toys. I haven’t found any information on a split promotion not being explicitly gendered, say, to run two “neutral” promotions at the same time. That in and of itself I don’t really take issue with – it allows kids to get a wider range of toys, ones that may not have been included previously, and throughout the 90s and most of the early 2000s, there were typically only two gender split promotions a year. The Barbie/Hot Wheels split, as I mentioned earlier, and one other. The “other” promo varied from year to year, mostly based on what toy lines were fairly popular.

A complete set of the first Barbie Happy Meal toys. Credit: drivethrutoys on Youtube

In 1992, the second promo was a Cabbage Patch Kids/Tonka truck split that returned in 1993 and 1994. 1995 introduced an Attack Pack and Polly Pocket split, followed by a Littlest Pet Shop/Transformers split in 1996, a Sky Dancers/Micro Machines split in 1997, and a My Little Pony/Transformers Beast Wars split in 1998. The second promotion always varied, but McDonald’s stuck pretty faithfully to the two split promos a year through at least 2004. This is when my research gets a bit fuzzy, as I haven’t been able to locate any information on promotions from the years 2005 through 2008. The collector’s manuals I’ve found stop in the early 2000s, and the listings on figure-archive.net only run through 2004.

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The first LPS/Transformers in-store display. Credit: ebay.com

SOMETHING happened in those years to trigger a huge shift in the Happy Meal toy marketing department. From the two split promos in 2004, we jump to 2009. Out of the 15 promotions that year, 7 of them – just about half – were split. That number continues to increase through the early 2010s, as last year (2014) saw a whopping 10 of the 15 promotions as gender split, the most puzzling being the promo for the film The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Though the same film was promoted in both “girls” and “boys” Happy Meal toys, the “boys” got actual action figures while the “girls” got pink heart-shaped notepads with Spider-Man on them.

2014 Spider-Man Happy Meal toys. Credit: comicsalliance.com

2014 Spider-Man Happy Meal toys. Credit: comicsalliance.com

My best guess as to why there was a sudden increase in gender split promotions? In 2006, the Walt Disney Company severed their ties with McDonald’s, stating that they would no longer be promoting their franchises at the restaurant in favor of partnering their films with “healthier” foods. (This is why, despite Frozen taking over the world last year, you saw it everywhere BUT Happy Meals. How effective that was remains to be seen.) The company’s 20 + year partnership with McDonald’s – exclusive in its last 10 years – left a big hole in toy promotions (in 2003, there were 7 Disney promotions between first-run animated features, home video releases, live action films, Disney Channel shows and Pixar films) that needed filling and quick. Though both Dreamworks and Blue Sky were quick to pick up where Disney left off, their production output still left lots of gaps.

2014 Mario Kart 8/Teenie Beanie Boos promotion toys. Credit: gamespot.com

2014 Mario Kart 8/Teenie Beanie Boos promotion toys. Credit: gamespot.com

That’s where toy manufacturers stepped in. The number of playline toy based Happy Meals skyrocketed since film tie-ins weren’t as prevalent. There were some tie-ins to television properties – for example, a 2010 promotion between Star Wars Rebels and Strawberry Shortcake – both of which are two very toy-heavy franchises. On top of that, there were modifications to existing promotions. Teenie Beanies, a once gender-neutral promotion, were offered in a “girls” Happy Meal in 2014, against Mario Kart 8.

That’s my best guess as to what’s going on, at least.

So where am I going with this? Growing up a girl in the 90s, I appreciated having toys that reflected what I wanted to play with. While I loved Ninja Turtles and Ghostbusters, my mother forbade me and my sister from having toys from those properties (and more!), just because they were for “boys.” The few times I accidentally got “boy” toys in my Happy Meal, it was confusing – especially if I would have preferred one of the “girl” toys – but I didn’t like them any less. I guess that as an adult it’s easy – or at least easier – to see how targeted and biased the marketing and promotions are, and that it’d be just as easy to ask if you want Barbie or Hot Wheels instead of the “girl” or “boy” toy. When you’re a kid though, you don’t always think that you’re being marketed to. You think you’re getting a cool toy.

An employee sign asking cashiers to emphasize toy name over toy

An employee sign asking cashiers to emphasize toy name over toy “gender.” Credit: Do Something/Facebook

Keep this in mind as we discuss future Happy Meal promotions and toys – they were a big part of my childhood, and probably many of yours because of how accessible they were. When I was a kid, you could get almost 7 Happy Meals for the price of one Barbie. The ubiquity of the Happy Meal means that these toys are making their way into kids hands to be played with, loved, and, if my Littlest Pet Shop tiger is any indication, to be remembered.

So basically, I’ve opened up a huge can of worms that I find incredibly interesting. I think I’ll be touching a bit more on the different Happy Meal toys I have and remember from when I was a kid, with a slight emphasis on those from split promotions. Thanks for sticking with me this long! What promos do you remember the most fondly?

(Special thanks to Sammy Hain on Twitter for helping me out with the initial Hot Wheels/Barbie confirmation before my references came in!)


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4 responses to ““Barbie or Hot Wheels?” The History of the Split Promotion Happy Meal

  1. I’m looking at that last image, and I’m wondering if the insistence on dropping girl/boy toy is at all related to the latest MLP iteration being so popular with boys and fear of incidents based in boys (or their parents?) being upset that someone call MLP a “girl” toy rather than “hm gendering toys is hella dumb!”

  2. I didn’t know any of this stuff; thank you for looking into it. I think your theory about the increase in gender marketing sounds likely. Also, I totally had at least two of those Barbie dolls and the Cabbage Patch/Tonka split sounds really familiar (I was born in 85).

  3. I finally got a chace to read this Yay super cool!

    Can you elaborate on your point about Frozen?

    Since it was Disney who cut ties with McDonald’s (here in refered to as MD) the implication seem to be that Disney profits may have suffered notably. Regardless, Disney is more than just toys. At the moment Frozen is still the highest grossing animated film and I recall not being able to go into ANY store (barring MD of course) for quite some time without seeing characters from that film, AND merch, merch EVERY FRICKIN PLACE.

    It would be interesting to see numbers on actual movie merch sales and if there was and significant change.

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