Nine thoughts about Taco Bell’s decision to quit serving kid’s meals.

No more Taco Bell kid’s meals!

[kids briefly look up from their game systems with confused look, squinting; go back to playing]

Congratulations, Taco Bell, for all the press you’ve gotten by announcing kind of nothing much.

Another savvy move.

They even admit it: the kid’s meal makes no difference to them, and as they court horny Millennials they don’t even really want rugrats (or Rug Rats) mucking up the ambience. Well, they said it differently.

Anyway: it brings up an interesting topic.

Most places like the idea of getting kids to love them early; it means they’ll return with nostalgia repeatedly at different moments of their life, and train their own progeny to appreciate the brand.

But it makes a lot of sense for Taco Bell to drop at least the toys.

Here are nine random thoughts on the topic:


There is no industry more quick to leverage the trending whims of its customers than fast food (“You don’t like carbs? Here’s our weird, breadless sandwich!”)—which is why there are flea markets full of fast food/movie tie-in memorabilia. The “fast” extends to these restaurant’s ability to embrace a movie promotion and then just as quickly eject it from the store and scrub any trace of it (especially if the movie bombs).


As far as Taco Bell’s announcement that they’re discontinuing kid’s toys, that’s like the guy with a 3 and 6 showing in a five card stud poker game announcing he’s going to fold. McDonald’s and Burger King have dibs on the really big, promising movies, and there’s no incentive for them to stop creating fake “collector’s editions” for superhero and kid movies.


Every generation seems to have to get burnt by the idea that they have some fast food “collectible” item they need a complete set of—from 1970s and 80s Superman, Spiderman, Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica items to Transformers, Beanie Babies, Pixar toys, and Bratz—only to discover after they’ve aged out of kid’s meals that the collectibles they’re hoarding have no value.


It’s always interesting to notice the “pecking order” of fast food as judged by which movie/character tie-ins they can score. Looking at the not-very-fun toys for a second-tier Nickelodeon TV series enshrined in the plastic sample case by the register always made it clear the fast food joint in which you stood was not running with the big QSR dogs.


Kids have a natural “collect ’em all” tendency (from baseball cards to pogs in the old days, to all things Pokemon in the recent past), which a line of exciting or trendy toys plays right into. As long as it works, the major fast food players will keep doing it: it’s an evergreen strategy, because kids seem hardwired to respond to it—occasionally the ethical concerns are addressed by offering the rarely-chosen “apple and carrot stick” option. Taco Bell and Jack in the Box quit offering toys and tie-ins (in my view) largely because they aren’t at the top of the list for the really popular, truly of-the-moment toys and movies. Nobody wants to look like the second tier restaurant.


Kids are super-refined in their ability to distinguish the “good” toys from the “loser” or less-valuable, lower status toys. It totally makes sense for Taco Bell to dump their promos if they can’t get Superman or Batman or Spiderman or Bratz or Pokemon or whichever character creates the currently cool, top-of-the-heap brand association.


In the old days, companies tried to create their own “kid’s world” to make kids feel welcome and willing to nag their parents—from the McDonaldland characters to the original cardboard King’s crown at Burger King, to the ubiquitous cartoon-figures each restaurant invented for their placemat to invite kids to do a word search or super-easy maze. Then the fast food marketers wised up, and realized it was not only easier but more effective to tap into toys and movies that were already popular, or destined to be, and the game has become an annual guess as to which movie is going to bomb or be huge, and which branded toy is going to be the next Beanie Baby.


It’s all about whether the biggest movie or name-brand toy gets associated with the appropriately “important” restaurant: if McDonald’s or Burger King doesn’t get the biggest box office hit of the summer to make stuff for their kid’s meals, it just feels wrong to the kids (and even their parents). The big brands seem to belong together, and the lesser brands are left with each other: the fact that Monsters University is Subway’s current kid promo says less about Subway rising to the glorious level of Pixar branding, and more about the cheapening of the Pixar name and ever-more-poorly-reviewed output.



With fast food slowly admitting that they shouldn’t leave themselves open to the accusation that they’re the ones responsible for the nation’s obesity problem, kid’s toys and movie tie-ins are destined to quietly fade away. Even if the meals never become particularly healthy (a bag of apples is better than fries, but who subs apples for fries in a kid’s meal besides helicopter moms?), the huge red target on them gets a little less bright if the industry is not openly luring kids to beg, beg, beg for yet another meal shoved out of a drive-thru window.