KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Bob Bernstein's 9-year-old son ate the same cereal from the same box every morning and stared at the packaging so intently, it gave Bernstein, an advertising executive, a great idea.
"I got to think," Bernstein recalled from his office at Bernstein-Rein Advertising Inc., "kids want something to do while they're eating."
And so the McDonald's Happy Meal, a huge moneymaker for the fast-food company, was born, pairing a child-size meal with a tiny toy. The product, tested for two years, went into national release 25 years ago.
Happy Meals lure millions of children to McDonald's Corp. restaurants, and also bring in sales from parents who pick up a Big Mac or Chicken McNuggets for themselves when they stop in. Happy Meals are served at 31,000 restaurants in more than 100 countries and have made McDonald's the world's biggest distributor of toys.
Marketing experts agree: It was brilliant.
"Happy Meals proved that you could actually 'brand' a meal and make kids harass their parents for it," said Adam Hanft, president of Hanft Raboy & Partners, a New York advertising and marketing firm.
Exactly as Bernstein had planned.
"My feeling was if you get the children to think about McDonald's, mom would bring them there," he said.
What set the meal apart was the way it paired food and entertainment — an idea later advanced with McDonald's addition of play areas.
"Up until that point, McDonald's was just a restaurant," said Jay Lipe, a marketing consultant who authored "The Marketing Toolkit for Growing Businesses."
"But with the advent of the Happy Meal, it also became a very convenient toy store," Lipe said.
Bernstein's firm had been working with McDonald's franchisees for 10 years when he was challenged to create a promotion that would bring children back under the golden arches.
He holds the patent for the product's packaging and a bronze Happy Meal in his office — a gift from McDonald's on the meal's 10th anniversary — thanks him "for bringing the Happy Meal, a bold idea, to the McDonald's system."
Still, McDonald's credits Dick Brams, its former advertising manager in St. Louis, as "Father of the Happy Meal." He asked Bernstein to develop a children's meal concept, McDonald's says.
The Happy Meal — with a burger, fries, soft drink, toy and cookies (no longer included) — debuted in St. Louis, Kansas City, Phoenix and Las Vegas in 1977. It was tested in four other markets before being released nationally in the summer of 1979.
It helped streamline McDonald's operations and was a predecessor to its order-by-number menu. It wasn't the first such product at a restaurant, but it was the first to be so widely available.
"You know a good idea when you see it. I just didn't know how good it would be," Bernstein said.
The meals themselves have changed little, though parents can now opt for apple juice and milk instead of soda and apple slices over fries — part of McDonald's chainwide effort to offer healthier alternatives. In England, Happy Meals can come with Evian; France offers fish nuggets; Romania has mini apricot pies.
Children like the taste of a Happy Meal but are drawn by its toys — from "Star Trek" space rings in 1979 to Teeny Beanie Babies in 1997 to small video games last year.
"Not only did children generally like the cuisine McDonald's dished out, but this meal came with the miracle of a present as well," said Bob Thompson, a Syracuse University professor who lectures on popular culture.
Officials at McDonald's won't give any specifics about Happy Meal sales, but say they were up last year over 2002, and that they expect to sell 40 million more this year than in 2003.
Company officials say Happy Meal sales reflect McDonald's overall business. Positive growth of the product comes after a slump in the fast food giant's business in the early part of this decade, since eclipsed by four straight quarters of double-digit sales increases.
Martin Lindstrom, a marketing expert who authored "BRANDchild: Remarkable Insights into the Minds of Today's Global Kids and Their Relationships with Brands," said the product ranks among the top 10 significant introductions to American popular culture in the past 50 years.
"It gives parents just five minutes peace," he said.
And even as the fast food industry endures criticism, the Happy Meal maintains, in many ways, a cloak of innocence.
"The only people that are consistently upset with the Happy Meal are critics who don't buy them," Gene Grabowski, a food industry consultant, said. "Families love them, and if they didn't, McDonald's wouldn't sell them."
The analysis of experts and academics on the significance of the Happy Meal is of little concern to those who enjoy them.
"It's kind of a pick-me-up once in a while," said 21-year-old Emily Walker of Kansas City, who occasionally orders a Happy Meal, a brief return to her youth, when she estimates she ate hundreds. "I can't believe that the sight of a hamburger and a little plastic toy made me that excited."