One thing that has fascinated me for a long time is how huge, multi-billion dollar companies can make really obvious mistakes, mistakes that even a child could see.
Do people lose touch with the hoi polloi when they've been enjoying the perks of the executive cafeteria for too long?
Is it a product of the 'yes man' corporate culture, where some out-of-touch CEO has a shower epiphany which rips unchecked through vice presidents, middle managers, and teams of consultants to be broadcast nationwide?
Take what happened today: I'm looking at a photo of one of the biggest, most expensive branding decisions McDonald's has made in a long time. Happy, the new mascot of the Happy Meal.
This is an updated version of the old mascot, which was a Happy Meal box with a yellow smile drawn on it. Simple. Classic. Totally solid mascot. It seems logical, obvious, even, to give that old tried-and-true mascot an update. Bring it to life: add arms, legs and a face. What could possibly go wrong?
Crazy Eyes. That's what.
Happy looks crazy. Not evil, serial killer-crazy (which would actually, I think, be better) or even evil genius crazy... it's a desperate, deeply-needy, sad kind of crazy.
Happy's eyes say: "Hi! I'm Happy! Will you be my friend? Please? I have a lot of trouble reading social cues! Oh my God, I'm so lonely!"
Happy has the kind of expression on his face that you sometimes see on an internet date or a person you are sitting next to on a transatlantic flight. The kind of expression the person in the aisle wears that makes you think, "How much time can I spend in the bathroom before it becomes rude to the point of cruelty?" Shortly before ordering the strongest possible drink as fast as you possibly can.
In its press release, McDonald's says Happy will serve as "an ambassador for balanced and wholesome eating... and will encourage kids to enjoy fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy and wholesome beverages such as water or juice."
Happy accompanies a new yogurt option (alternative to french fries) in the Happy Meal. So, Happy is telling kids to eat their fruits and vegetables.
Kids, who will take one look at Happy and know that if they sat next to Happy in the lunch room, their social life would be over until they went to college. If you thought kids hated eating their fruits and vegetables before, now those fruits and vegetables are associated with being a social outcast... which makes me think that maybe, just maybe, Happy isn't the marketing snafu it first appears to be.
Maybe Happy is ACTUALLY a piece of marketing genius.
Consider this: McDonald's serves burgers, sodas, fries, Filets-o-Fish, McRibs, Egg McMuffins and basically everything that is bad for you and can fit inside of a sesame seed bun. McDonald's might SAY it's embracing healthy eating, but it's not.
If everyone in the world started eating what their doctor told them to, McDonald's would go out of business inside of two weeks. So what does McDonald's do? It rolls out a mascot for healthy eating, to tell kids how great "fruits, vegetables and wholesome beverages" are; a mascot that is so deeply unsettling to look at, any child who sees it will probably never want to go within 100 miles of fruit, vegetables or wholesome drinks ever again.
You know what doesn't have any fruits or too many vegetables? Burgers. Fries. Filets-o-Fish. McRibs. Egg McMuffins and basically everything else McDonald's serves.
McDonald's has not rolled out a messed-up mascot, it's invented the anti-mascot. Happy is reverse-psychology marketing in action.
Children, highly impressionable children, will now forever associate "balanced and wholesome eating" with the kid who sits alone in the corner of the cafeteria and brings his cousin to the Homecoming dance.
Sure, Happy might have crazy eyes... but I would submit that they might just be crazy, like a fox. Crazy like a fox that will spend the rest of its life thinking trans-fats are what the cool kids are eating.
Well played, McDonald's.