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"Happy" the Happy Meal (a fully owned, fully licensed creation of McDonald's)

“Happy” the Happy Meal (a fully owned, fully licensed creation of McDonald’s)

Today Ferrebeekeeper abjectly drops all discussion of space exploration, art, literature, zoology, and history in order to concentrate on the biggest trending topic of the day–a disquieting animated character who takes the form of a weird toothy box. What’s the story here? Well, it turns out that, McDonald’s, the globe-spanning fast-food eatery has introduced a new mascot, “Happy” a happy meal box who wants kids to eat their vegetables and yogurt. The internet is awash in jokes about Happy’s lurid color, ambiguous motivations, and his oh-so-human (and oh-so-large) teeth. Mascots have been a subject of great interest to me ever since the black-and-white TV introduced me to the McDonaldland gang when I was a bright nervous child so I feel like we can do better for Happy (well, better than Gawker’s boilerplate jokes at least) and unpackage some of his history.

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McDonald’s is an American restaurant (actually considering its name & its obsession with cheap beef and potatoes, maybe it’s Irish-American) which began in 1940 in California as a barbecue joint. After the Second World War it changed into a hamburger restaurant and then spread its wings to become the most successful chain restaurant in history. One of the important steps of its evolution into an international corporate hegemon was developing a colorful crew of mascot characters to sell burgers, fries, and, above all, “the McDonald’s brand” to impressionable children (like me!).

The McDonaldland Gang (from a 1973 book cover)

The McDonaldland Gang (from a 1973 book cover)

In the early 1970s, an advertising agency introduced a whole team of mascots collectively known as McDonaldland to the world. The concept was based on the drugged-up fantasy landscape of H.R. Pufnstuf (a surreal puppet show which has cast long delirious shadows over children’s programming ever since it aired). True to the source material, the original cast was a disquieting mélange of weird beings: Mayor McCheese, a corrupt bureaucrat whose head is made of a cheeseburger; Hamburglar, a muttering lunatic thief; and, of course, Ronald McDonald, the dangerous-looking clown prince of the anthropomorphized fast-food landscape.

Grimace

Grimace

Some of the characters were quickly revised. Grimace was originally a villainous purple octopus with a monomaniacal love for milkshakes. Unfortunately early consumer tests determined that children were terrified of the multi-armed abomination. Flummoxed ad-executives were prepared to rework the entire concept, when one perspicacious adman came up with a brainstorm characteristic of the industry. “Let’s just rip his arms off!” he said. So Grimace–whom many people doubtless think of as a mitochondria or a rhizome—is actually an octopus whose arms were amputated by drunken 1970s admen.

"Good-Bye to All That"

“Good-Bye to All That”

The McDonaldland gang hit their heyday in the 1980s, when they were everywhere. Figures were abruptly retired (like poor Captain Cook) or changed, while new ones such as Birdie the breakfast bird made sudden appearances. Yet times change, and contemporary McDonald’s is trying to put McDonaldland behind them. Ronald McDonald has kept his position as a figurehead (much like Mickey Mouse) and the other characters sometimes appear in weathered murals or old playground equipment, but today’s advertising concentrates on pseudo-healthy communities of friends eating together and “lovin’ it”.

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The happy meal, however, continues to attract children with its colorful bag and complimentary toy. It also continues to attract regulators and litigation, so McDonald’s swung into action and created Happy. The animated box started out in the minors—France and Latin America–where he (it?) attained sufficient success to leap to the American market this month.

These forms of Happy never made it out of France: McDonald's does not need two mascot controversies at once

These forms of Happy never made it out of France: McDonald’s does not need two mascot controversies at once

With his loopy eyes, boxy form, and infinite hungry maw, Happy seems like he could almost be a throwback to the McDonaldland era. Yet he is patently a computer animation rather than a human-inhabited puppet. Additionally his putative raison d’être is to convince kids to pursue healthier eating habits. According to McDonald’s own press release:

McDonald’s today introduced “Happy,” a new animated Happy Meal character that brings fun and excitement to kids’ meals while also serving as an ambassador for balanced and wholesome eating. Happy will be introduced nationwide May 23, and will encourage kids to enjoy fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy and wholesome beverages such as water or juice.

That certainly sounds admirable, but adults take one look at Happy and shudder. Moreover his true purpose is obvious to us (after all we have spent a lifetime eating under the golden arches): he is obviously meant to sell McDonald’s products to kids. It’s easy to be cynical about him—but I now look back at the strained look on my parents’ faces as they endured the burglars, killer clowns, evil octopi, and pirates of my youth with new understanding. Corporate mascots are friendly monsters who entice children to buy sundry unnecessary goods and services. Kids should get used to brushing them off as soon as possible. It is fine preparation for adult life when the corporate monsters take off their googly eyes and apply their coercion more directly.

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octopus-valentines-day-card

Today is Valentine’s Day!  Happy valentines to all my readers. You all really are the best and, although I don’t want to make any syrupy declarations of love, I truly do esteem you. I would bake you all a big heart-shaped cherry cake if such a thing were possible (ed’s note: logistical studies determined that baking a large delicious cake was indeed possible, but fulfillment—getting the cake to the esteemed blog readers—was far beyond the author’s shaky grasp of organization].

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Having said all of that, I am not the world’s biggest Valentine’s Day fan.  I dislike the slushy gray month of February when winter has long outstayed its welcome (but when spring remains far away).  Corporate forces pop into one’s love life (or absence thereof) to remind everyone to buy pink plastic junk and churn out some more consumers.  I can’t help but feel that they are being insincere and perhaps a bit greedy.

Or maybe they are trying to sell to people trapped in offices instead of lovers...

Or maybe they are trying to sell to people trapped in offices instead of lovers…

I was going to write about the color pink and how it became thoroughly conflated with romance and with the holiday.  Unfortunately, looking up “pink romantic history” on the web resulted in me finding out lots about the private life of popular musician Pink, but little about how pink came to dominate romance, women’s products, girl’s toys, and the month of February.

At least she found a supportive partner...

At least she found a supportive partner…

Probably any intelligent adult can surmise the fundamental reasons that the color pink and the physical aspects of romance are linked.  Irrespective, I really like the color pink a great deal—it is the color of sessile invertebrates, roses, animal’s noses, the sunset, and I find it frustrating that marketers overuse it because of gender stereotypes and lack of imagination.

There are too many chalky candies and not enough flamingos

There are too many chalky candies and not enough flamingos

Anyway, I’m rambling.  I guess the point was that, like most single people in America, I am frustrated by Valentine’s Day.  Maybe that is my fault instead of the fault of Hallmark.  I should learn to appreciate what I have—like my wonderful readers.  Happy Valentine’s Day!  You all really are the best!  Even if I didn’t bake a cake for you, come back on Monday and I’ll write a really good post!  Also, as a final note, there is one good thing about Valentine’s Day—it means the winter is finally coming to its last stages.  And  who knows, maybe next year, despite all of the failures, we’ll finally get romance right…

Tulip in spring snow (DI00800)

free-photo-purple-orchid-523No doubt you have noticed how different clothing stores have the same color palette for their wares.  If you walk from Banana Republic to Uniqlo to Armani Exchange, you will see remarkably different garments at wildly different prices…and yet the colors are all the same (and the opposing colors suit each other beautifully).  The effect even stretches to kitchen and home goods stores: so if you are particularly obsessed you can probably match your underwear, your blender, and your divan—as long as you buy them in the same year (and also assuming you buy divans). The reason for this phenomenon is that every year the mughals of fashion, trendiness, and color itself get together and proclaim a color palette for the year.

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In practice, international corporations tend to defer to Pantone, a company based in New Jersey for this palette.  Every year Pantone (allegedly) convenes a secret quorum of fashionistas, artists, Illuminati, scientists, sorcerers, and what not in an unknown European capital to choose the color which most accurately expresses the zeitgeist of all human endeavor for a year. [When I was imprisoned in the legal industry, a strange coworker who was really “in the scene” during the eighties confided that what all this really means is that a gay man with a sharp eye chooses the palette, Pantone reviews it, and everyone else gets told what colors to use.  This sounds quite plausible, but I have no way of verifying the truth of the allegation.  Pantone has grown much savvier at marketing nonsense since the eighties…as indeed has everyone except for me, alas].

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Anyway, the official color of the year of 2014 is [insert royal fanfare with horns] “Radiant Orchid” an extremely pretty mid-tone purple/lavender.  To celebrate, I have illustrated this article with radiant orchid pictures (at least to such an extent my computer’s ever changing screen and my own eyes can replicate the hue).  Undoubtedly the other colors you see at shops this year will all perfectly match radiant orchid. Pantone announces the color of the year for free, but if you would like to see the associated palette you will have to order the proprietary information from Pantone View.

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As you can probably tell from the tone of this post, I feel that “the color of the year” is a bit silly (not radiant orchid, which I find very fetching, but the concept itself), yet I do like the idea of a unified palette and I like the fact that favorite colors change with the era in accordance to a larger consensus of human taste.   Perhaps someday we will all smile with bittersweet nostalgia as we think back on 2014 with its mild lavender in the same way that my parents talk about mustard and avocado or my grandparents talk about baby blue.  In the meantime, if purple is your thing you should feel happy, and if not you should start pulling strings right now to influence the mystery color of 2015.

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My first paying job in New York City was working as a temporary paralegal for a white-shoe law firm.  The gig only lasted a night–but that time was very instructive. I was called in because there was a task so boring that none of the extremely bored people who worked in that great temple to dullness wanted to undertake it.  I came in at 8:30 PM in the evening and worked straight for 13 hours–after which they called a Cadillac to take me home.

There was an immense stack of old-timey dot printed financial records (the ones that were attached to each other by perforated edges to form a continuous spooling sheet).  This huge primitive spreadsheet detailed all of the transactions made by a group of companies in all states, territories, and dependencies over all time.  My job was to go through everything and find each time a certain sequence of numbers came up.  I then noted down the relevant numbers that appeared beside the sacred sequence on a computer spreadsheet.

Welcome to New York!

The main difficulty to this task (other than not despairing at the absurdity of human endeavor) was to keep one’s place on endless nearly identical sheets of densely printed numbers.  I therefore asked for a ruler or a straight edge and was told I would be provided with one immediately.  An hour later, at 9:30 PM, an immense packing crate suitable for, say an industrial microwave, arrived, delivered by expensive private messengers.  I opened it and found the box was filled with packing peanuts.  In the very middle, nearly lost, were two 75 cent plastic rulers.

This was an important lesson about business in New York.  It doesn’t matter whether a job is done cleverly or efficiently or even well.  It only matters that it be done as quickly as possible in the most expensive way possible.  I have always remembered this when following the news of finance and legal affairs in the morning papers.

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