In the most recent installment of A Collector’s Trek, we examined some of the odder items released to promote Star Trek: The Motion Picture. This time around, we’re going to take a look at perhaps the most pioneering bit of merchandising tied to the film. A promotional product that still influences a worldwide industry even today. That’s right… I hope you’re hungry, because today we are going to unwrap our cheeseburgers, dip our French fries in ketchup, and take a satisfying bite out of the Star Trek TMP McDonald’s Happy Meal Promotion. Hope you brought napkins.
Happy Meal tie-in promotions have been a constant part of my life. As a kid, I remember bugging my parents to take me each week to McDonald’s so I could complete my Muppet Babies figurine set. During my high school and college years, the Happy Meal was a cheap (and fun) alternative to the sometimes belly-bulging adult value meals. And now as a father, I get to complete the circle and give in to my sons’ pleas for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Young Justice meals. I guess I was born at a perfect time to witness my entire life played out through a fast food perspective. I’m lucky that way. Had I been born a decade earlier, I would have grown up without meals meant to make me smile.
See, back in the early 1970’s there was no such thing as a “happy meal” (regardless of what your mom tried to label her meatloaf and lumpy mashed potatoes as). Children eating with their parents at McDonald’s were forced to choose their nourishment from the adult menu. But thanks to the genius of advertising exec Bob Bernstein, an alternative meal option was created in 1977 for this younger demographic. After witnessing his son gazing at colorful cereal boxes during breakfast time, Bernstein reasoned that a similar approach could be applied to his client McDonald’s food to make it more appealing to children. He and his design team came up with the Happy Meal: A burger, small fries, cookies, and a small gift… All enclosed inside a lavish box covered in images meant to appeal to kids.
So what does all this have to do with Star Trek? Glad you asked. In 1979, McDonald’s decided to up the ante with their Happy Meals by using them as a marketing promotion for a current family film or television property. The idea was that children would watch a film or show and then beg their parents to rush out and buy a Happy Meal based on it. And what did McDonald’s choose as the first film to base such a promotion around? Yup, you guessed it: Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It was the ultimate marketing no-brainer. Star Trek appealed to multiple age groups and had a pre-existing audience that few other films of the time could claim, making it the perfect choice for this initial fast food pairing.
During these early years of Happy Meal goodness, McDonald’s focused more on the boxes than they did the toys, so the highlights of the Star Trek TMP set really are the colorful boxes. There are 5 boxes in all (6 if you include the variant Spock box), each featuring a gaggle of games and a bevy of interesting illustrations. By far the coolest element of the packaging though is a five-part comic adaptation of early scenes from the film, including the Transporter mishap that claimed the lives of two crew members. I am fairly certain that this was the first and last time that a Happy Meal box prominently displayed a gruesome death scene. I guess it was a little tough to enjoy your burger while thinking about the pile of goo that used to be Commander Sonak.
On the toy side of things, McDonald’s offered a few different treats to keep young minds occupied while munching:
-Star Trek Rings: Snap-together plastic rings molded in a variety of colors. The square front of each ring featured a raised portrait which opened to reveal a tiny hidden compartment. Perfect for storing, umm, your straw wrapper I guess?
-Star Trek Starfleet Game: A fold-out game made of thick paper with little punch-out Enterprise tokens. Pilot your Enterprise token out of Starfleet headquarters on a mission through the perils of space. First one to reach V-Ger gets to transform into a bodiless being of light! Yay!
-Star Trek Double Glitter Iron-On Sheets: This little sheet of TMP related iron-on images had so much glitter involved that they had to put the word “double” in the description. And just in case you pick one of these up in the secondary market nowadays…. Yes, they do indeed still work! I recently made a Spock shirt for my youngest son using one of these babies.
-Star Trek Bracelet: Made of translucent plastic, this bracelet featured images of the crew and a shot of the Enterprise on the buckling mechanism. Maybe not the most exciting item in the batch, but it is definitely the most fashionable.
-Star Trek Video Communicator: I saved the best for last; The Video Communicator really makes the other items seem cheap by comparison. Each Communicator consisted of a plastic housing with one of five comic strips inside. Feed the strip through the communicator to watch the story unfold inside the small viewing port. 23rd century technology available… way back in 1979.
It would be hard to argue that Happy Meals wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Star Trek TMP. Had McDonald’s not used it as their first film tie-in, I am sure another movie would have yielded similar results. But the fact remains that history books will always record the Star Trek: The Motion Picture promotion as the very first tie-in, paving the way for over three decades filled with the happiest of Happy Meals . Just another point in the long list of ways Star Trek has affected all of our lives….
Oh, and of course no article on the Star Trek Happy Meals would be complete without at least one viewing of the classic commercial. Behold the proud Klingon papa:
Want to read more from James Sawyer about Star Trek products? Check out his blog - A Piece of the Action.