I'm calling them placemats, but they're not really placemats. Help me out here. You go to McDonald's, you order your food, and the cashlady puts everything in orderly fashion upon a plastic tray for you to carry to your table of choice. Those pieces of paper that shield your food from the often filthy trays...what would they be called? Tray covers? Is it that simple?
Oh well. I spent a good forty-five seconds building that article logo up there, and I'm not doing that again. Today, tray covers are being called placemats.
McDonald's once used placemats merely for the aforementioned purpose of keeping loose McNuggets and fries from becoming forever linked with whatever tray grime the person who ate before you left behind. Oh sure, they wash the trays, but there's a big difference between running something through a dishwasher and running something under the vague caress of a sloppy towel, and unless you know for sure, NO, you will not eat food that touches the tray directly.
Never to miss an opportunity, McDonald's eventually turned their placemats...turned their place...mats....
Damn. I really should be calling them tray covers.
Never to miss an opportunity, McDonald's eventually turned their tray covers into advertorial spreads, pushing the chain's latest edible offerings, contests, promotions and whatever the hell else they wanted us to know about. Without bothering to check, it's easy to predict that there have been a great many books written about the history of McDonald's, giving those interested a play-by-play breakdown of everything the fast food franchise champ has done since its inception in the year 1560. I find thumbing through a stack of McDonald's tray covers from the past several decades to be a much easier read. There are pictures on every page!
Below are one dozen placements covering over thirty years' worth of wild and crazy times at McDonald's. Forgotten foods, million dollar contests, the errant Batman Forever collector's mug...it's all here, and it's all for you, Damien. Click any of the tray cover pictures for super-sized versions with words you can almost read!
In 1982, McDonald's teamed with the time's biggest video game producers in the "Atari Scratch 'n' Win" game, where customers were given neat scratch-off cards based on one of three now-classic games: Star Raiders, Missile Command or Centipede. There were ten scratchy spots on each card, and if a player was able to reveal two identical prize symbols before landing on a game-ending "zap" symbol, he or she would win that prize, no questions asked.
The interesting thing here was that every card had the potential to be a winning one. To offset that, there were far more prizes offered for "free McDonald's food" than for what people were actually playing for: Atari games, systems, computers and so forth. They even gave out full-sized Centipede arcade cabinets. The Atari Scratch 'n' Win game could also be credited with the small spike of 1982 suicides, because it was entirely possible for a customer to lose on a grand prize winning card by scratching onto a "zap" symbol before hitting the identical "BIG WINNA" symbols.
Fortunately for us, it was also possible to cheat. By manipulating the cards with various bends and trick lighting, players could determine which symbols were where before going through with the no-backsies coin scratch. While this only lent most people free sodas and fries, it probably saved a few "real" winners from needing to blow their brains out.
It's really strange for me to note that McDonald's Chicken McNuggets were only invented in my lifetime, because I grew up considering them a staple food and was positive that my ancestors must've thought the same. Introduced in 1982, McDonald's first portrayed their chicken rocks as some kind of "novelty food." It wasn't so much about what they tasted like, but rather, how people went about eating them. This tray cover is a good example of that.
The right-side column of the tray cover listed three ways to develop the "McNugget touch." You could be a "Dipper," who patiently and laboriously savored each and every sauce-drenched bite. Then there were "Slam Dunkers," who were so obsessed with eating Chicken McNuggets as quickly as possible that they got the things in the sauce and down their throats quicker than three shakes of a hummingbird's wings. More disgusting consumers were "Big Splashers," who actually let their McNuggets sit in the sauce tub for a minute or so, as if to infuse poultry with the essence of hot mustard sauce. Big Splashers are chiefly responsible for McDonald's drive-thru components being so popular, because who wants to eat next to someone who does shit like that?
Note: I haven't seen McDonald's "Hot Mustard" sauce in years, but it's listed here, alongside "Barbecue," "Sweet & Sour" and..."Honey!" There's no "Honey" sauce where I live! Why can't I have "Honey?"
In 1996, McDonald's got the bright idea to offer a collection of burgers and other sandwiches that went against every theory of what dinner at McDonald's should be. The leader of this brazen new line was the "Arch Deluxe," a burger made with more "grownup" ingredients, like peppered bacon and fancier buns. Actually, the Arch Deluxe was pretty much like any other McDonald's burger...it was just put together a little more gently.
The point of this was to convince customers that McDonald's didn't only cater to the "kid palette," and were perfectly capable of satisfying adult customers. Course, the problem here is that adults never really rejected McDonald's food on the basis of it being too "for kids." If adults didn't eat at McDonald's, it was because they liked Burger King better or just chose to avoid fast food altogether. I just can't believe that there were thirty-somethings actively avoiding McDonald's because Big Macs made them feel like Frankie Cheeks.
Whether there was actually a market for semi-modified clones of sandwiches already on the menu is immaterial. For other reasons, Arch Deluxe and its sister "Deluxers" were doomed to fail regardless. First reason: They cost too much. They were the most expensive things on the menu, and people were not willing to pay more money just so they could get food wrappers and containers with less fruity graphics on them.
The second reason is more infamous. McDonald's hired out some ad agency to make sense of their Arch Deluxe, and the result was a really weird and totally stupid campaign that portrayed kids as being disgusted with the new sandwiches. (Because these babies were for adults, see!) So, instead of showing slacks-donning adults scarfing down Arch Deluxes at three-martini lunches, they showed a bunch of kids making shit faces and saying "icky icky icky."
It was a dumb ad campaign, and few consumers bought that there was any real strong dichotomy between McDonald's regular food and McDonald's "adult" food. More proof, and I swear to God: The flipside of the above tray cover features a coloring page with Spider-Man and Wolverine on it.
I was a little long in the tooth for Happy Meals by 1995, but this tray cover still exemplifies one of the biggest reasons kids had sacred blood oaths for Ronald McDonald. For kids, no new movie, cartoon, comic book or video game was truly worthy of devotion until it became a Happy Meal. While it's true that the honor of being a Happy Meal has been given to some pretty undeserving contenders through the years, it's also true that Chip and Dale were never fully welcomed as "Rescue Rangers" until I ripped open a little bag with a plastic Monterey Jack money clip inside.
Actually, though there was a Happy Meal in conjunction with it, this tray cover more exclusively promotes the first Power Ranger movie, which replaced familiar starring villains with a guy named "Ivan Ooze," who had like ten trillion cans of ill-conceived purple slime. To help punctuate these plot devices, the tray cover features Power Rangers telling us that "the way to be cool is to stay in school."
After the television show grew to enormous popularity with children everywhere dreaming of being a Power Ranger, watchdogs complained that it taught kids how to beat up other kids. Actually, it taught kids that they could win battles with the help of otherworldly jumping prowess and the ability to call upon giant robots whenever things went to shit, but the point is, the show was being criticized. This tray cover is just part of a large effort to turn the Power Rangers into something parents could love, with such life-altering gems of wisdom as:
"One person can make a big difference!"
"It takes time to be good at anything. Use the power of determination to see you through!"
Now, do those sound like the words of a bad influence? Shut up and order your fries.
Ah, the McDonald's breakfast. The world's most cherished hangover cure, and don't scoff. We've all been there. You spend a barely legal night feeding each and every impulse, and when you wake up, you pay for it. Sometimes, the level of toxins rushing through your bloodstream manifests itself as a brainwave that forces our shaking, dizzy asses to remember the one and only cure-all for mornings after mirth: Fucking McMuffins, mang. I don't care if you spend the night at an abandoned Petland drinking box-wine and eating dead plecos -- a McMuffin will still put you back together afterwards.
This 1983 tray cover isn't that special, but I'm including it because I distinctly remember eating off of it in the '80s. Notice how it makes mention of all the meats being "U.S.D.A. inspected?" I used to imagine suited meat inspectors carousing McDonald's kitchens during the restaurant's off-hours, using little tiny stampers to mark the various patties that were acceptable for us to eat. It made every bite feel more important.
I'm also now just realizing that the traditional McDonald's breakfast spread -- a styro container with sun-colored eggs and perfectly disc-shaped sides -- is great inspiration for pop art. I think I'll spend my twilight years painting McDonald's breakfast items on garbage can lids and hawking my work on eBay under the seller name of "art_isnt_safe." I picture myself being very bearded.
Once we saw that "Roc Donald's" scene in the 1993 Flintstones movie, it was just a matter of time before McDonald's did some stupid shit. There were a few commercials where McD's was actually portrayed as Roc Donald's, promoting the hell out of the movie by way of the "Grand Poobah Meal," which primarily consisted of the holy McRib in a special Flintstones-themed box.
Using the McRib as a Flintstones-themed offering made sense in its own little way, but I'd have to imagine that McRib purists spent 1993 ticked to all hell. See, the McRib only came out for a limited time each year, and if you wanted one in 1993, you had to actually say "gimme one Grand Poobah Meal." And even if you paraphrased that, you still had to work "Grand Poobah Meal" in somewhere. That sucked. The McRib was for grizzled construction workers and the other unsung blue collar heroes of our fine nation. These weren't the kind of folks who wanted to say dopey shit in front of the townsfolk at McDonald's, much less were they people who wanted pictures of Rosie O'Donnell gracing their french fry containers.
It was with some hesitation that McDonald's entered partnership with Batman Forever in 1995, because just a few years earlier, the restaurant chain was totally burned by its associated with Batman Returns. See, nobody had any reason to suspect that Batman Returns was going to push its PG-13 boundaries to the point it did, and between the fish-eating Penguin, cockteasing Catwoman and nearly pornographic Alfred, people just couldn't believe that McDonald's would afford such a movie its own Happy Meal. They took a lot of flack and collected their losses as best they could, but you can bet that Ronald McDonald himself personally screened Batman Forever to make sure they were no scenes where the primary villains played pattycake with Batman's crotch. Batman Forever indeed was a lighter movie overall, and that made it a-okay for McDonald's to forge a glassware collection in its honor.
For "McDonald's toys," these cups were amazing. I still have and use the Two-Face version to this day, generally whenever I want to pretend that the Coca-Cola I'm drinking is actually a villainous potion that will grant me super strength. "Chiseled out of molten glass," the cups were not packaged free in any kind of special value meal, but were rather available for standalone purchases at participating McDonald's. The tray cover spends much of its real estate promoting the glasses, but there's also a mention of the "Super Hero Super-Size Meal," which included a really weird "sideways burger" with three beef patties for Batman-lovin' fatties.
This is as good of a place as any to note that of any song that could've had its music video filled with random clips from Batman Forever, Seal's "Kiss From a Rose" was just the absolute worst choice ever. Poor Seal. He stood there trying his damndest to turn the song into our generation's hallmark ballad, and just when he gets the right mix of despair and lovesickness on his face...BAM, they cut to a shot of Tommy Lee Jones covered in cake icing, flipping coins. Plus he had lupus. You had to feel bad for Seal.
In 1981 and a handful of times thereafter, McDonald's ran its "Build A Big Mac" contest. Though certainly not something we obsessed about on the level of McDonald's annual Monopoly game, the promotion was pretty neat. Customers would gather up stamps whenever they ate at McDonald's, slowly building the image of a Big Mac with those stamps. By completing a specific section of the burger, players could win anything from money to home entertainment systems. Other stamps were instant winners, but if you hit for anything on those, it was usually just a free pie.
This contest set the tone for many other prize-bringing promotions in McDonald's later years, which is commendable enough to warrant this tray cover's inclusion here. Course, the real reason I'm including it is because I love that picture of the group of hardhatters climbing up ladders and building a 15' Big Mac. It's just like that dream I had after eating a jarful of year-old gherkins.
McDonald's had more than one Hot Wheels team-up with the folks from Mattel, but this tray cover references my very favorite of those promotions, from 1983. It was the ultimate Happy Meal, because you got a real toy, no different from the Hot Wheels cars you'd buy at Toys 'R' Us. And, because Mattel was trying to inspire mass interest in the line, each of the fourteen available cars were absolutely awesome. You had everything from Corvettes to police cars, but my favorite -- the one I remember -- was the "Tricar X-8," otherwise known as "holy shit that car is a rocket ship." (Check out the next-to-last car on the bottom row.)
I couldn't believe my good fortune when that car came my way, because it wasn't like you had a choice when you went to McDonald's. The tray cover says that a different car was available each day; that sounds a little too efficient to be true, but it was still completely potluck. If you look at the fourteen available cars, it's obvious that the Tricar X-8 was the chaser. The other cars were cool, but they didn't have sharp points and they certainly weren't rocket ships. I was a little young to truly grasp the notion of being privileged in 1983, but when I got that car, I knew God had chosen me.
The tray cover also featured a little area where kids could draw and design their own Hot Wheels car, but since they started the picture off with the wheels already in place, out went anyone's idea to make a Hot Wheels Death Tank.
This 1984 tray cover refers to the McDLT by its more formal original name of the "Lettuce & Tomato Special," but that name sucks. Make no mistake, it's the McDLT: One of the best things McDonald's has ever did done yes.
The McDLT was your usual burger patty with lettuce/tomato condiments, but its fame was all due to the way it was presented. Sold in dual-chamber containers, one side kept the bottom bun and burger hot, while the other hid the top bun, lettuce and tomato slice so they could stay cool. It was that very gimmick that led to the McDLT's demise, as McDonald's was taking so much flack for using so much environmentally-destructive Styrofoam that they ultimately killed off the sandwich despite its success. And if you don't believe that, the other running theory was that the McDLT's super-sized container took up way too many rows of "shelf space" at McDonald's restaurants.
After it left, gone were the days that consumers could actually build their little burgers right at the table, taking extra care to align the tomato slice dead center over the burger patty. It really sucked when you took a bite and got more tomato than cow. With people still fondly recollecting the era of the McDLT today, I'm surprised that McDonald's doesn't bring it back every once in a while for nostalgia tours, complete with television commercials that make ironic use of 80s pop hits.
The tray cover above, from 1986, was McDonald's attempt to help promote various happenings at local Sea World parks. At the time, you could get coupons for $2.50 off Sea World tickets at participating restaurants, which isn't so interesting until you look close and notice the picture of Ronald McDonald with his arm around Shamu on the front of each coupon. Why a day in the life of this superhero team was never made into a major motion picture, I'll never understand.
I thought I'd have more to say about this tray cover when I took its picture, but I'm totally dry. Perhaps now would be a good time to offer my stance on abortion.
1994's "Super-Size Your Way To The Super Bowl" campaign offered customers the chance to win one of 200 trips to the Super Bowl just by peeling little, oily stickers off of fry containers. The contest was a little convoluted, because you had to watch some pre-game show to match up your ticket's codes to numbers on the screen, or some shit. I don't know. I'd never try to win a trip to the Super Bowl, so frig reading the fine print. Besides, hearing about the Super Bowl just reminds me that I can't partake in any of those cool office pools because I don't know how the charts work.
In conclusion, I've just completed a bit more research, and realized that these things aren't placemats or tray covers, but rather...trayliners. I hope you've enjoyed this merry trip down McMemory Lane with twelve of the most picture-laden trayliners in McDonald's history. I'm off to watch 24 so I can keep up with everyone bitching about Jack's low death count this season.