Hot on the heels of the Boo Buckets promotion, McDonald’s announced the release of its new Happy Meal toys: figurines based off characters from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, which heads to theaters November 11. There are 10 toys in total, all of them characters from the new Marvel movie. These might seem like ordinary toys—McDonald’s Happy Meals have promoted family films for decades—but they continue a quiet theme that has run through all the fast food chain’s recent promotions: representation.
In its announcement of the new Happy Meal toys, McDonald’s explains that the Wakanda Forever lineup “gives everyone the chance to see and celebrate their inner hero.”
“The first Black Panther movie... set a whole new standard for representation on the big screen,” Jennifer Healan, VP of U.S. Marketing, Brand Content and Engagement at McDonald’s, said in the press release. “And now, we’re excited to bring that experience to our restaurants and help fans see and celebrate their inner hero with this new Happy Meal – because seeing is believing.”
The press release goes on to explain that McDonald’s is “committed to lifting up the voices of the communities we serve” and strategically rolls out “marketing initiatives designed to help drive representation.” There’s even a list of programs supported by McDonald’s whose stated aim is to support diverse creators. It’s a far cry from the way that promotions like last year’s Space Jam Happy Meal toys were advertised.
The new toys are, in this way, being touted as a celebration of diversity. But when you think about it, all of McDonald’s recent promotions have been representative, in their own way, of how diverse creators have shaped the pop culture landscape.
Since 2020, McDonald’s has perfected its approach to new promotions by taking its cues from streetwear companies and influencer culture. Celebrity collaborations like the Travis Scott, J. Balvin, BTS, and Saweetie Meals have all involved centering non-white creators. And the Cactus Plant Flea Market Box, which contributed to a 37% boost in foot traffic to McDonald’s, is a product directly designed by a woman-owned streetwear company.
When the BTS meal came out, I remember thinking how remarkable it was to see K-pop represented so prominently at a restaurant that shaped the way I grew up in America. For decades it wasn’t particularly cool to be Korean-American, or the child of immigrant parents. Suddenly there I was, seeing people who look like me with their own much-hyped collaboration, at arguably the biggest and most popular fast food chain in the world. And now people can’t get enough of K-pop in all facets of entertainment, including food.
Unlike with the Wakanda Forever Happy Meal toys, McDonald’s has not woven language about representation into its recent blockbuster promotions. Instead of shaping the conversation by trying to grab the spotlight, it would seem that McDonald’s is meeting its customer base where it’s at, and in the process, leading by consistent example.
The company confirmed to The Takeout that its marketing initiatives are purposefully representative of the consumers it wishes to reach, and designed to amplify the voice of that community. And yes, that includes everything from Happy Meal toys to celebrity meal collabs.
Sure, it ultimately amounts to a strategy to sell hamburgers, but it’s been interesting to see a fast food chain spotlight tastemakers and win a ton of business in the process.