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2503/01 . John Windsor . Observer . UK  
No Accounting for Taste  
John Windsor explains why fast-food toys are fast becoming collectors' items  

Police reinforcements were called when a queue outside a restaurant became violent and a man was arrested for punching the restaurant manager.

What were they after? McDonald's fast food give-away toys. It happened in Tuen Mun, Malaysia, at one of the 28,000 McDonald's restaurants in 120 countries that feed 45 million customers a day.

The arrested man, among thousands who wanted the free McDonald's Snoopy toy given with Big Value meals, complained that the manager had allowed queue jumping. The manager was taken to hospital with chest pains, according to the South China Morning Post.

Far fetched? Listen to the experience of Lawrence Yap, who has just launched a UK McDonald's collectors club. He visited his birthplace in Malaysia, Ipoh, in the same year, 1998, when he and his family joined a queue for McDonald's toy bears: 'The queue was at least a mile long. Some people queued for several hours and when the toys ran out there were fights and the riot police were called.Sad to say, we did not get a set of bears. McDonald's UK has still not released them over here.'

But other McDonald's giveaways are fetching fancy prices. Plastic casts of Disney's 101 Dalmatians, issued here in 1996, now fetch up to 40 each. If your child has a McDonald's dalmatian puppy on an umbrella or one on a tortoise,confiscate it, quick. The full set of 101, boxed with a certificate, was given away as a prize, one per restaurant, and now fetches 500. The new boxed set of 102 Dalmatians, a tie-in with the film sequel, so far issued only in the US, is worth 800 here.

Dozens of collectors' guides to fast-food toys have been published, covering not only McDonald's but other chains such as Burger King and Wendy's, which capitalised on McDonald's success.

Online auctioneer eBay offers thousands of fast-food toys daily. I counted 34 traders in fast food collectables on the web (at The Online Collector) including 'Awesome Fast Food Toys' and 'Gotta Have It - Fast Food Toys'. The gotta-have is intensified by 'cross-over' value; a McDonald's Disney toy may be fought over by both McDonald's and Disney collectors.

It's crazy, of course. But in 100 years' time will historians share the view of the snootier among us, that this is a trivial pursuit indulged in by people with no taste in either food or plastic?

Consider: McDonald's, the world's biggest food service retailer, with a turnover of $40 billion, has harnessed the pulling-power of icon characters from films, television, computer games, cartoon strips and the toy trade and turned buying hamburgers into a fetish. It is a phenomenon. Mickey Mouse, Batman, Sonic the Hedgehog, Garfield and Barbie have all leased their images to the McDonald's empire. The American Sky Dancers toy, television show and video actually relied on a multi-million dollar McDonald's advertising campaign in order to outsell Barbie.

Such fervour for icons is to be found only among the Eastern religions. Or in the tens of thousands of pounds paid for Andy Warhol's silkscreen pop-art images of Marilyn Monroe, Mickey Mouse and the Coca-Cola can. Future sociology and economics students are sure to face examination questions about the nature and significance of the 'McDonald's experience'. What will they make of it?

As it happens, there's a lapel pin - one of 25,000 different McDonald's pin designs - showing Mickey Mouse, Marilyn Monroe and a Coke bottle, all joined by McDonald's golden arches. A surfeit of icons to pull the purse strings.The one I saw had attracted a top bid of 6.80 on eBay UK. A snip for both chic intellectuals and fast-food toy punters.

If the conjunction of Mickey Mouse and Marilyn Monroe gives you the creeps, it will be because McDonald's has targeted children in order to pull in adults' money. Just as teenagers acquired spending power decades ago, now it is toddlers with pester-power. The twist is that the kids eat the hamburgers and the adults make off with the toys.

It started innocently enough. McDonald's founder Ray A. Kroc, a salesman with marketing rights to milkshake mixers, homed in on the children's market as soon as he had bought out the McDonald brothers' burger business for $2.7m in 1961. A marketing visionary, he dreamed up the clown Ronald McDonald, the first 'character' to appear in television commercials in America. But it was not until the launch of McDonald's Happy Meals in 1977, offering a free toy with every helping of hamburger, fries and soft drink, that the stampede started.

Today, McDonald's seems to have become squeamish about its children's market. Certainly, its cosseted corporate image gains nothing from adults throwing away food but keeping the Teenie Beanie Baby toys that go with it. Some 100 million Teenie Beanie Babies, a 1997 Happy Meal promotion, were snapped up in little more than a week. An embarrassing success. Last year's Beanies had to be rationed to one per customer (current value in the secondary market - 25 per mint and packed set of 12, 80 for the US version).

But McDonald's is stuck with the kids. A $100m marketing campaign to lure adults with Arch Deluxe food, in 1996, was a flop.

This may be part of the reason why McDonald's holds toy collectors at arms length, refusing to endorse or sponsor collectors' clubs apart from the big club in Des Plaines, Illinois - home town of the McDonald's Museum and purported site of the first McDonald's restaurant. After all, there's enough mayhem in the retail market for kids' stuff without getting mired in the mad fly-by-night world of adult fast-food toy traders. A UK McDonald's collectors' club that boasted 2,700 members in this country and 4,000 overseas recently folded - its organiser having unexpectedly decamped to sunny Florida.

A new club launched in January by Lawrence Yap, a 43-year-old company accountant (10 annual subscription) so far has 30 members. Once-bitten collectors are obviously still shy. Yap regards McDonald's stand-offishness with amusement. Why, he asked McDonald's UK, as a complete-the-set collector would, did the January Happy Meal giveaway of Digimon digital monsters come with different coloured plastic discs, unannounced by Wham , the 'what's happening at McDonald's' newsletter? And why did pink discs appear in Portsmouth, yellow ones in Wales and Hertfordshire, grey, mauve and blue in Blackpool and Preston and orange in Essex and the Hertfordshire borders? 'They won't tell you anything,' he laughs. 'It's terrible, but it does make collecting more challenging.'

Much of the market news that he and Danville Warner, a 38-year-old warehouseman, contribute to the newly revived monthly feature on fast food collectables in Collect It! magazine, is hearsay, gleaned by email from other collectors in the UK and America. Collecting McDonald's is a bit like collecting Swiss Swatch watches, whose multifarious limited editions are distributed capriciously worldwide.

American McDonald's addicts seem more supine, attending conventions in big hotels where they dutifully take notes at seminars and turn their rooms into for-sale shrines of McDonald's toys. Judging by pictures of their meetings on the net, a surprising proportion of them are overweight. They obviously go the whole hog.

But there's plenty to amuse once you key 'McDonald's' into your computer. For a start, there's the anti-McDonald's activists', a spin-off from the marathon 'McLibel' trial in London.

It offers alternative merchandise such as 'McGarbage' T-shirts, 7, and has some very, very rude things to say about Ronald McDonald.

As for the corporation, its po-facedness does seem to cause it to shoot itself in the foot, PR-wise. Its bland website headline 'Sue the Dinosaur' looks at first like an invitation to litigation.

And why did the corp not feel the need to explain why its newly announced vice president of marketing, Larry Zwain, has a PhD in flavour and fragrance chemistry and a master's degree in food toxicology - food poisoning to you and me.

Most curious of all is the weakly punning McDonald's character Hamburglar, a sentimental evocation of a housebreaker in mask and broad-striped overalls. Click on his (presumably stolen) hidden hamburgers on the corporate website and you win a certificate. A fine example to the kids.

Still, original McDonald's characters sell for a premium. A set of four plastic cars, with Hamburglar driving one, issued in the UK in 1991, is worth at least 20. It's all right if you've got no taste.  
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