Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

"Do you know how long it's been?" said my editor.

"We talked last week," I replied, a touch confused.

"Here, take a look," he said, wisely ignoring my every word.

I waded through the links he gave me and confess I was taken aback.

June 2019 marks 40 years since McDonald's launched the Happy Meal all across America.

Yes, it's been 40 whole years since our children were first subjected to the joyous union of fried food and toys.

I hadn't really thought where Happy Meals had come from.

I'd merely assumed that one day someone at McDonald's had decided that the children are our future and created a little play box for them. Just to be nice.

The history and the psychology are, however, both entirely fascinating and contain some competing stories, which I can't say I managed to entirely get to the definitive bottom of.

One involves the apparent role of a Chilean woman in Guatemala.

Please, though, come along with me for a little Happy ride.

Here's a Tulsa World interview with Joe Johnston, who, in 1972, worked on an ad team that created something called the Fun Meal.

He describes a tantalizing America back then: 

Imagine a world in which there is almost no children's marketing, aside from breakfast cereal and Ovaltine -- a world in which children have no influence on family spending. Sound bizarre? It's not 'The Twilight Zone.' It was the American marketplace of 1972.

Can you imagine an America where food purveyors didn't peddle their wares manipulatively at children?

My, how the Deep (Fried) State worked in strange ways back then.

Toying With An Idea.

Still, the task at hand for the ad people was to expand McDonald's business without putting new things on the menu.

That would have been far too tiresome a revolution, far too torturous for franchisees and employees. So, Johnston says, the ad people wondered whether to attract kids with toys.

Ah, but that would cost money. Instead, then, they designed a white receptacle. Said Johnston: 

We created a white sack with mazes, games and puzzles printed on it, pretty much like the ones McDonald's still uses today. At that time, the only burger in a box was the Big Mac. It was a nominal cost to put burgers in boxes rather than paper wrappers, so that became our premise: decorated boxes for kids.

So gullible, those kids.

Oh, it was popular when it was tested, but McDonald's management rejected the whole thing.

Let's drift, then, to Guatemala.

The story goes that in the mid-70s, Yolanda Fernández de Cofiño, a McDonald's franchisee there, created something called the Menu Ronald.

She had the idea of bundling together a burger, fries and a sundae to make kids, well, happy.

It was all about giving the parents some light relief.

This idea seems to have drifted to a man called Bob Bernstein, who consulted for McDonald's. It gave him much food for thought.

Johnston, too, gives Bernstein credit for finally managing to brand something called the Happy Meal and, most importantly, deliver it in a palatable form to McDonald's management.

Bernstein observed how his kids were fascinated with cereal boxes and the toys inside, so he commissioned children's illustrators to bring the Happy Meal world to life.

The Happy Meal was tested in Kansas in 1977. Two years later, it became became a national thing.

Brams On The List.

But wait, who was Dick Brams? As I tried to delve more deeply, I saw that this McDonald's St. Louis Regional Advertising Manager is credited by some as "the Father of the Happy Meal."

Ah, he seems to have been the one who hired Bernstein to perform his happy tricks.

Successful ideas have many parents.

Tracking it all is so exhausting, so let's pause to see one of the first Happy Meal ads from that era.

What kid could have possibly resisted the colorful boxes and, goodness, prizes?

From our obesity-laden perch, it's easy to see why everyone thought this was a good idea at the time.

So clever, so economical and just so darned happy.

America loves this sort of exciting mixture.

Of course, American parents began to realize that hooking kids on Happy Meals -- and toys tied to big, happy movies like Star Trek and Star Wars -- wasn't the healthiest thing to do.

Still, McDonald's persisted. Please look at this joy.

And Then The Reckoning. Well, Some Reckoning.

In 2010, Johnston ended up testifying in a case when the Center for Science in the Public Interest sued McDonald's, insisting it had marketed its way into causing a public health crisis.

Explained Johnston: 

I testified for them and told them that our conclusion was it doesn't work without the toy, so in effect, you are advertising the toy.

It wasn't, you see, the food that created fascination with the toy. It was the other way around.

What a way to sell nourishment. Can you imagine that one of the great contributors toward childhood obesity was toys?

Municipalities began to ban the practice of toys in fast-food meals.

Of course, McDonald's wasn't alone in such practices. Corporations love to copy successful ideas. It's so much less work.

Yet, despite that particular lawsuit failing, McDonald's -- and many others -- started to take steps to wean kids off (at least some of) the worst side-effects of Happyness. 

The company has begun offering healthier Happy Meals. Meanwhile, its rivals -- no saints, they -- are now offering healthier meals for everyone, with radical creations like Burger King's Impossible Whopper (which still has around the same number of calories as a meat burger.)

It's easy now to look back and fear that so much damage was done.

Perhaps many parents now feel guilty about how they allowed their kids to bathe in a Happy world that contributed to making them overweight. 

Johnston himself admitted to qualms: 

I can't say that it's a contribution to a better life for humanity, but I will say that a lot of parents and a lot of families have had a lot of fun with it.

And that's also true. It was a very clever -- if, some might say, an existentially horrible -- piece of marketing, something that lasted decades.

Perhaps we're now entering a time when marketing is becoming far more socially conscious. Perhaps we can thank millennials for that.

Yet the Happy Meal marketing principles haven't exactly died.

Why, so many apps do their darndest to get kids to buy virtual toys and weapons and wait for their parents to pay the bill.

It's true of the latest technologies, just as it's true of the Happy Meal.

Only after many years do people look back and see what was really achieved. Or, perhaps, perpetrated.

Published on: Jun 2, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.