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May 20, 2014

McDonald's new mascot: Creepy or kid-friendly?

NEW YORK — This week, McDonald's introduced "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." This "brand ambassador" is named Happy, and he/she/it is an anthropomorphized Happy Meal box.

Not surprisingly, the American reaction to Happy's introduction has been one of horror. "McDonald's Has a New Mascot, and It's Terrifying" was the headline at Mashable. "Perhaps everyone and their children will be too frightened by Happy to ever eat at McDonald's again?" asked Gawker's Aleksander Chan. The Washington Post's Mark Berman dubbed Happy "the McDonald's Happy Meal Box Who Came To Life Because You Didn't Clean Your Room Last Night."

Indeed, it's difficult to imagine small children falling in love with Happy, shrieking in delight when Happy appears in television commercials and begging their parents for a plush stuffed Happy to cuddle at night. Happy is, in fact, so intuitively unappealing that I have to wonder if that's the point. The character is ostensibly meant to "encourage kids to enjoy fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy and wholesome beverages such as water or juice" — but maybe that's a bit of psychological trickery. Perhaps McDonald's wants kids to associate healthy fare with the terror of looking into Happy's gaping maw, thereby making them less likely to want to eat fresh produce and more likely to want to eat relatively unthreatening chicken nuggets.

An alternate (or complementary) theory is that Happy is in fact meant not to connect with children, but with adults, specifically the adults who drink heavily and then eat McDonald's fries to soak up the excess alcohol. Look at Happy's eyes, specifically the lower lids: Those are not the eyes of a sober Happy Meal box. They are the eyes of a Happy Meal box at the tail end of a serious bender.

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