As a historian of pop culture, I have written much about toys and Halloween over the years, and few pop-culture phenomena for the under-10 set have been as perfectly tailored for the collector market as McDonald’s plastic pumpkin pails.
First released in 1986 and then actively offered most years through the late ’90s, the pails were allowed to fall into a pure collectable play by McDonald’s despite the fact that they had obvious utility. They were the perfect size for safely carrying around candy.
But because of boredom or perhaps a desire to do something else for a while, these pails went away, despite growing incredibly sophisticated over time. Most notable were the 1992 Halloween pails, which had an easy-open lid with a cookie cutter underneath, making them not only easy to use but convenient.
Given the fast-food chain’s prominence among families, this feels like an immense waste, and something that I wrote about in 2020, arguing that the restaurant chain needs to just offer these every single year.
It took them until 2022 to listen, but the pails are making a comeback this year, with designs evocative of some of the ’80s styles.
Awesome, great. But let’s talk about the plastic elephant in the room—the new plastic pails are not as good as the old ones, and the reason is that they don’t actually have lids, but just 2D silhouettes embedded in the handles, where the lids should go. If you’re going to go to the trouble of bringing these back, don’t half-measure it.
Those pails had utility, and outside of the primary use case were perfect carrying cases for crayons and other kid-friendly things throughout the year. But not without a lid.
Whoever made the decision to now actually offer lids should be excommunicated from the Mickey D’s marketing team. (OK, not really.)
But I think the stronger argument here is the fact that the marketing plays into a retro style, which implies to me that McDonald’s sees this as a play for collectable-minded parents more than kids. This, again, is a misunderstanding of the market. This is a utility device that just happens to also be a toy. McDonald’s is in the collectables game with Happy Meals at this point, yes, but the truth of the matter is, it would be much more valuable to its customers if it just made these things every year, updating the designs as needed, it would still be plenty collectable.
If you want to ensure they have secondary-market value, give the thing to famous artists—see what kinds of takes they could offer this iconic design—but essentially, commit to selling it, and treat it like something that will never go away, as consistent in the calendar year as a Peanuts special. (Side note: No brand tie-ins. Keep this thing pure. Trust me.)
I think there’s a tendency with kid’s toys in fast-food meals to treat them as one-time products that will never have value to their target audience outside of the initial use. I’d argue that this is not-only short-sighted, but minimizes the value of an evergreen product.
If you’re going to build a utility, ensure that the utility sticks around for the long haul. Don’t keep pulling the rug out from under kids and parents who find it valuable.
Because they’re ultimately your target audience—not the collectors.
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