For me, as a child, McDonald’s was an easy, painless solution to my mother’s constant dilemma of feeding a stubbornly picky eater. The restaurant doubled as a mid-day field trip–after a Happy Meal, I would play in the jungle gym PlayPlace while she chatted with the other exasperated parents going through the same routine. When it was time to leave, I could take home a souvenir of the outing in the form of a Happy Meal toy as a lasting memento to come back soon for the release of the next prize. For the first few years of my life, a significant portion of my palate consisted of french fries, Chicken McNuggets, and honey sauce. My toy chest contained as many McDonald’s figures as regular store-bought ones.

According to Eric Schlosser, the author of Fast Food Nation, McDonald’s properties contain more playgrounds than any other privatized organization in the U.S., and the company is one of the largest distributors of toys in the nation (link).

The marketing ploy worked on countless American households outside of my own, from sea to shining sea.

When you get down to it, that’s what Happy Meals are: the products of effective marketing targeted to a highly impressionable demographic through an ad agency called the Leo Burnett Company, a massive Chicago firm best known for creating the Marlboro Man. Instead of coming to the flavor of Marlboro Country, young people were to crave a visit to McDonaldland. In place of addictive nicotine, the hook was sugar, fat, salt, and a collectible piece of imported plastic.

Millions like me who grew up with Happy Meals will find it impossible to deny McDonald’s place in their formative years–we may have grown up to break ties with Ronald McDonald as our taste buds were refined, but the branded mascot still permeates our childhood memories. That’s the “tugboat copywriting,” as one Burnett employee called it, at work–the callous pulling at our heartstrings by the red-shoe clown Caesar of the Golden Arches (link).

No McDonald’s memory can be stronger for those of us who grew up with a Nintendo Entertainment System as the one from August 1990, when fussy kids like me somehow found a way to become even fussier: the Super Mario Bros. 3 Happy Meal.

In a press release sent out on the first day of the “Super” Happy Meal, August 8th, Peter Main, Nintendo’s vice president of marketing, announced, “The Nintendo/McDonald’s promotion represents our first major tie-in with a quick-service restaurant and responds to the incredible popularity of Mario, this country’s number-one video game hero.”

A former neighbor to then-Nintendo of America President Minoru Arakawa, Main masterminded Nintendo’s immensely profitable business strategy of increasing demand while rationing supply. When 250,000 units of Super Mario Bros. 3 shipped to stores earlier that year in February, they sold out in just two days (link). ”You have to find out which store is getting the game and be there within a half-hour of the truck,” David White, associate editor of Electronic Gaming Monthly, told USA TodayAdweek’s Marketing Week magazine named Main “Marketer of the Year” in 1989 for his ingenuity (link). Family members forced to drive around for hours on end to fight over the latest Nintendo cartridge may have had a few other choice names for the man.

McDonald’s Vice President of National Marketing David Green emphasized the familial connection that the two corporate giants enjoyed, saying, “This is a great opportunity to bring the fun of Nintendo to the more than 18 million U.S. customers of McDonald’s restaurants, particularly since Mario and McDonald’s have such strong appeal to the entire family.”

At a time when Mario was more recognizable than Mickey, in a country where only Santa is more known to children than Ronald, the joining of these two forces was like Christmas Day at the Magic Kingdom.

Nintendo claimed to have in excess of $10 million reserved for Super Mario Bros. 3 television ads and merchandising support for the remainder of the year, and forecasted 9 million copies of the game would sell in 1990, for a retail revenue of $450 million, which would constitute roughly a third of the total nationwide sales of the previous titles in the Super Mario Bros. series up to that point.

(Image source: RetroMags.com)

The mainstream marketing of Super Mario Bros. 3 began earlier in December 1989 with the theatrical release of The Wizard, which is best remembered for giving youthful moviegoers their first glimpse of the game in action. Audiences were given a free issue of Pocket Power, a miniaturized version of the official Nintendo Power magazine, that featured a prominent plug for Super Mario Bros. 3, not to mention this enthusiastic endorsement from the film’s main star, Fred Savage: “I can’t wait until it comes out and I can buy it!”

In the spring of 1990, a DiC-produced animated series based on Super Mario Bros. 3 was ordered by NBC for the fall’s Saturday morning lineup, which would start airing at the end of Mario’s Happy Meal run in September. Movies, television, and fast food tie-ins, there was just no escaping the Mario madness.

 

(Image source: SMBIS.NESCentral.com)

The extra push by McDonald’s also wouldn’t hurt Nintendo sales leading up to the all-important holiday-buying months, especially during a recession. The Happy Meal would not only prolong the Super Mario Bros. 3 fervor, it would solidify it tangibly with one of five included premiums: a suction-cupped Mario, a pullback Luigi, a back-flipping Little Goomba, a hopping Koopa Paratroopa, and finally a rotund Raccoon Super Mario figurine for the three-and-under crowd.

 

(Image source: SMBIS.NESCentral.com)

McDonald’s supported the promotion with a number of Happy Meal commercial spots, which featured all-new animation. One showed Mario eating a hamburger with Ronald and Grimace in a three-dimensional Mushroom Kingdom, while another had Raccoon Mario interacting with his various Happy Meal toys on the tables of a crowded McDonald’s restaurant. “There are four different toys, one in each Happy Meal you buy your kids,” a male voice-over says in the commercials. “But hurry, these toys will go fast!”

Only a month after Chicken McNuggets debuted nationally in 1983, McDonald’s catapulted to become the second largest purchaser of chicken behind KFC (link).

Rich Seidelman was the vice president executive art director for the Ronald McDonald and Happy Meal account at Leo Burnett. His career started in 1979 at Needham, Harper & Steers, McDonald’s former ad agency, which first implemented the food fantasy world of McDonaldland through the inspiration of Sid and Marty Krofft. When the switch was made to Burnett in 1982, he followed, working there for nearly two decades before retiring in 2001. He is credited for redesigning all of the McDonaldland characters in the mid-1980s, as well as Ronald, himself, in 2000. He was also the brains behind the McNugget Buddies, anthropomorphic Chicken McNugget foam rubber puppets that starred in numerous McDonald’s ads.

“I did not create the Mario Brothers Happy Meal TV commercials,”  Seidelman told me. “All the McDonald’s kids creative teams worked in offices next to, or just down the hall from each other, but I just don’t remember which ones worked on that promotion. Many times we received film clips from the animated series or movie, and often the entire movie or TV episodes on videotape or DVD. Then we could request certain scenes to use as clips in the commercials. Sometimes, we would even create original animation for the commercial, either using the original company or trusted suppliers. We did that with Fraggle Rock, Tiny Toons, Bobby’s World, and many others. We created new animation that followed the guidelines of the character’s personalities.”

But a Happy Meal isn’t a Happy Meal without its distinctive cardboard box vessel, and for the Super Mario Bros. 3 promotion, containers based on four of the new digital landscapes and their treacherous inhabitants joined silly jokes and activities, giving children even more opportunities to fixate over all things Mario.

According to Seidelman, the toys, boxes, and displays were created at Chicago-area agencies, like Simon Marketing, The Marketing Store, and Frankel & Co., before the commercials were shot.

“When I received an assignment, we got a written document, a page or two, from the account executive, who talked with the client, regarding what the client was looking for and what they wanted to communicate with a particular promotion. For example, demonstrate what the toys can do, show clips from the cartoon, and contain information about the toys and what they looked like, background information,”  Seidelman said. “We were given creative liberty with some simple guidelines to follow. Or with Ronald McDonald, McDonald’s would say, in very general terms, ‘We want to do a hamburger or french fry commercial,’ or ‘We want a holiday commercial or something for Halloween based on the Halloween toys.’ Sometimes it was not specific at all, and we were given great liberties to create whatever we wanted to come up with.”

Keep your eyes on the prize. In Seidelman’s “What Am I Gonna Be For Halloween?” magic-markered commercial storyboard from 1995, all parts of the mise-en-scène appear to point to or focus on one thing: the toy.

The whole process revolved around the toys, he said. The art director would use them to draw up storyboards, and then would work with the writer to create a story.

“McDonald’s never said, ‘You have to do this or that.’ After we created the storyboards, they could buy them as-is, or make changes, or dump them totally and send us back to the drawing board. We would create two or three or more storyboards to present to McDonald’s, and they would select the ones they wanted us to film. The art director and writer were assigned a producer, and we would be involved in the production of the commercial from beginning to end, including not only the filming, but all of the post-production: music, voices, special effects. Everything, just like a mini-movie.”

Over 25 years after the promotion, in early 2016, the original artwork for the Super Mario Bros. 3 boxes was unearthed at an Illinois estate sale by a vintage collectibles reseller named Jim Christoffel. They offer a rare peek at the McDonald’s and Nintendo marketing machines at full throttle.

The pieces were created by Racer Reynolds Illustration, a design agency headed by two married commercial artists, Tim Racer and Donna Reynolds.

“We were illustrators in Chicago from 1984 to 1991,” Racer told me, “and moved to Oakland in June of 1991.”

It was in Oakland where they founded a dog rescue group in 1999 called Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pit Bulls (“BADRAP”), making headlines years later for taking nine of disgraced NFL player Michael Vick’s abused animals across the country in an RV to provide them with some much needed shelter (link).

“McDonald’s was our biggest client while working in Chicago,” Racer said, “we would illustrate entire campaigns for them.”

Gil Toperoff, a creative director at Frankel from 1983 to 2001, worked on Happy Meal toys and packaging. According to him, the Super Mario Bros. 3 project was finished far in advance of the actual promotion, back in 1989, before the video game was even released in the States. Navigating the lengthy maze of contracts, designs, redesigns, tie-in partners’ approvals, meetings, prototype sample sculpting, manufacturing, shipping, point-of-purchase displays, advertising, commercials, and distribution could take as long as a year.

“We usually had five or six Happy Meals in various stages of development going on at the same time, and each one was done by a different art director and writer,” Toperoff said. “I’m embarrassed to say I don’t recall exactly which art director worked on Mario Bros. 3 back then. It could have been any one of the seven or eight art directors that were in my group at that time. I believe it was done by an art director named Randy, but naturally I can’t recall his last name at the moment. Racer Reynolds was a Chicago art studio that occasionally did work for several art directors who worked on Happy Meals with me. Studios like Racer Reynolds had a staff of artists and often used more than one illustrator to work on different parts of a project.”

Each of the Super Mario Bros. 3 Happy Meal boxes were laid out on 26 x 16-inch art boards, which make up three of the four sides.

A thin piece of vellum paper was taped on the outside of the art boards for the purposes of marking each side (“R1,” “R2,” or R3″), labeling which box the artwork belongs to (“Island” for Island World, “Pipe” for Pipe Land, or “Sky” for Sky Land), and testing the connect-the-dots activities. (The art board for the Desert Land box remains missing.)

Underneath the vellum paper, an acetate overlay can be found, which contains the black-line work for each Super Mario Bros. 3 image. These outlines were not painted by hand, but rather printed onto the transparencies.

(Image source: RetroMags.com)

The reason for this is because most of the poses come from Nintendo stock art, which can be found elsewhere, like Nintendo Power’s Super Mario Bros. 3 Strategy Guide. Nintendo was reportedly highly protective of how its characters looked on merchandising products, and so using official examples would prevent any anomalies (link).

“Generally, all animated characters have some type of ‘guidelines’ and ‘clip art’ to guide artists to draw the characters correctly,” Seidelman said. “Ronald McDonald and the McDonaldland characters had a specification manual. Disney always has style guides. An art director could use the approved stock artwork, or could create their own drawings, provided they fit specifications. I’m sure if new drawings were generated, they probably had to be approved by the client company.”

Below the acetate overlay lies the original coloring, which was accomplished using the blue-line process. This entailed copying the black lines of the stock images onto the art board as non-reproducible blue ink. A colorist then painted around these blue outlines by hand using watercolors, flipping back and forth between the overlay to ensure that the paints properly coordinated with and gave dimension to the defined black-line stock images.

The side box flaps were done on separate art boards, only one of which has survived.

Although these show unique Mario character artwork, and not stock images, they were executed through the same blue-line process as before.

The two at the top are labelled “R6” to “R9” and were used for the jokes that appear on the Desert Land box. The ones at the bottom, “R10” to “R13,” make up the Pipe Land jokes.

The last part of the box, the fourth side, may be the most visually interesting of all. They portray faux 8-bit re-creations, illustrations that mimick the digitized look of the Nintendo game. While not exactly pixel-perfect, some were nevertheless surprisingly convincing.

This 16 x 9-inch piece shows Tanooki Mario’s royal meeting with the Sky Land King. Although it may appear to be a screenshot at first glance, the artwork is actually not.

There are several slight differences from the original source material, such as the king’s droopier nose and less full beard.

Blue lines were again utilized for the coloring.

More creative liberties were taken with Princess Toadstool. She measures approximately 5 x 8 inches.

Once more, blue lines can be seen underneath the acetate overlay. The King and the Princess artworks were used as part of an activity to decode a secret message on the Sky Land box.

Additional slides: Desert Coins, Desert Hill, Desert PyramidThree Clouds, Two CloudsOne CloudDesert Castle, Mario Run, Mario SuspendersSky Question Blocks, Sky BlocksPipes, Broken Pipes, Hanging PipesPipe Maze, Toad’s House, Sky Beanstalk, Big Boss Bass, Water Blocks, Waterway

The backgrounds for the boxes come from actual Super Mario Bros. 3 game screens, which the above 35mm slide demonstrates. When blown up, the graphics blurred, which might explain the need for the aforementioned facsimiles when more detail was necessary.

As this slide of the Sky Land King’s throne room shows, in-game shots were fuzzy at best.

Interestingly, a slide of the World 2 King was also discovered, which might have meant that His Royalty was headed for the Desert Land box at one point.

This slide reveals a work-in-progress version of the Princess when she was still a reddish brunette, which is to say throughout most of her Nintendo Entertainment System career (unless you count NES Open Tournament Golf and Yoshi’s Cookie as curl canon). Her pivot to peroxide officially occurred in Super Mario World, despite the fact that she was always depicted as being a blonde in instruction manuals dating back to Super Mario Bros. 2. It would appear that the Happy Meal folks were justifiably confused.

(Image source: Jim Christoffel)

(Image source: Jim Christoffel)

(Image source: Jim Christoffel)

(Image source: Jim Christoffel)

The sprite backdrops were applied to 20 x 30-inch keyline layout boards. All of the character images, text, and copyright information were then pasted over these diagrams.

(Image source: Jim Christoffel)

(Image source: Jim Christoffel)

(Image source: Jim Christoffel)

(Image source: Jim Christoffel)

MunderColor, a Chicago prepress company, subsequently printed color samples of the boxes for review. Some notes were made on parts that needed fixing. For example, on the Island World box, Boss Bass is circled and given the following nuanced instructions: “FISH–Red should be more red.”

(Image source: Jim Christoffel)

After these corrections were made, the final cartons were then printed, shipped to McDonald’s restaurants, and finally assembled by employees.

This rather exhausting method of designing Happy Meal packages has since been entirely replaced by computers, making this find that much rarer.

Whether or not as a result of the mounting concerns over childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes, issues that were amplified by multiple lawsuits and increasingly negative press, the McDonaldland concept has all but faded away in recent years. Ronald’s spirit can still be felt behind the scenes, but Happy Meal commercials now seem firmly planted in the real world, with an emphasis placed on pandering to parents by peddling apple slices, clementines, yogurt, and 1% milk with the food-fragrant playthings.

“Regarding the disappearance of the McDonaldland characters, I think it’s a shame,” Seidelman remarked. “They developed those characters for over 30-something years and let them drift away, about 50 years for Ronald. You’re right, Ronald doesn’t appear very much. I understand McDonald’s isn’t doing any more Ronald commercials nationally, but is leaving it up to the local markets to do their own commercials with their own local Ronalds. Sounds like a disaster to me. ‘Come on down to Mel’s Used Car Lot, and see Ronald McDonald.'”

When Seidelman retired in 2001 with his writing partner, so did several other key advertising and marketing people for McDonald’s.

“They were the people who developed and believed in Ronald and the McDonaldland characters. So with new people in charge, of course they had to do it their way,” Seidelman said. “By 2003 or so, the characters were gone, and Ronald was doing wimpy commercials by himself every once in a while. With that, and all of the pressure McDonald’s was receiving about making kids fat with unhealthy food, the whole thing gets tossed in the dumpster. So now we have goofy Happy Meal boxes that were developed in France, and are basically a Minions clone.”

He ended by saying, “McDonald’s have lost their personality. Their heart. Remember those adult and teenage commercials from the ’70s? They were slice-of-life commercials. You cared about the people and McDonald’s. Now all they do is sell food like all of the other restaurants.”

Such is the magic of marketing, where the invisible production of capitalism is contained and controlled by the whims of admen who, in the case of McDonald’s, knew children better than they knew themselves.