Rings of power—around my neck

A powerful addiction does invisible damage to my conscious consumer psyche

I secretly enjoy squishing the Grinch to make his heart light up.

I secretly enjoy squishing the Grinch to make his heart light up.

I cruised into the meeting about 10 minutes late carrying a notebook, a pen, a child-size Burger King cup filled with Diet Coke and the dark secret of my addiction.

I’m old enough to know better. I’ve been down this futile path before. And you don’t have to tell me what kind of example I’m setting for my kids.

Shame sets in.

My troubles began Saturday when I knowingly exposed myself to temptation. The kids wanted to go Christmas shopping, so we piled in the car and headed to the kinds of places suitable for the budgets of unemployed adolescents. We bought enough hemp cord and beads at Ben Franklin in Sparks for Tabitha to macramé 20 bracelets. We went to Target and the Dollar Tree. Jesse, 11, wanted to go to Burger King to get a Lord of the Rings Frodo goblet with a red light that glowifies its contents at the flip of a switch.

So we stopped for cheeseburgers.

I’m not going to go into any kind of lengthy comparison of which fast-food places serve edible burgers and which serve paper-wrapped meat-flavored mushwads or stiff cheese-coated pucks. This isn’t about greasy crisp fries or salty limp fries or potato-flavored fry-like starch molded into the customary rectangular strips.

It’s not about saturated fat. Or American obesity. Or that 75 percent of the grain sent to Third World countries is not used to feed starving kids but to maintain livestock production.

It’s not about the hundreds of thousands of tons of beef imported to the United States each year. Or that, once here, the meat pads the space between many a pair of buns—pads the wallets of some fast-food corporate executives and the waistlines of many of our nation’s youth.

Nope. It’s more about the consumerist contradictions that I face, realizing that I am mental putty in the hands of marketing forces as malevolent as anything J. R. R. Tolkien ever dreamed up.

As we walk into Burger King, the glowing goblets are on top of a two-tiered display. On the bottom are displayed the departing Burger King Kid’s Club Meal™ toys. The Kid’s Club Meal is a McDonald’s Happy Meal™ knock-off: burger, fries, a Coke and a toy that probably costs more to make than the meal’s food products combined. McDonald’s has historically offered some cool toys. The Ty Teeny Beanie Babies© proved immensely popular, with otherwise kind and gentle moms turning into raging lunatics over the cute furry collectibles.

“What do you mean you’re out of Happy the Hippopotamuses! I already have three Pincher the Crabs and a half-dozen Inch the Worms. Look in the back, slacker!”

I fed many a burger or McNugget™ Happy Meal to my hapless babes during desperate frenzies to complete my set of six or nine or 43 Teeny Beanies. We stopped at every McDonald’s we passed as I attempted to find the needed Beanie.

“Do you have the hippo?” I’d ask.

My Ring of Power playset lacks five characters; I feel that lack of character profoundly.

“No, ma’am, we only have the crab and the worm.”

“Can you look in the back?”

“No, ma’am, we only have the crab and the worm.”

“Are you getting any more hippos in?”

The obsession got out of hand. I’d be talking to sane people about world politics or the economy or irradiated fruit. But I’d really be thinking of Beanies and wondering if it’d be a bad, wasteful thing to buy 10 Happy Meals and throw out the burgers.

After some therapy and, more importantly, the tendency of McDonald’s to offer more inane toys like Barbie™ statues or the wussy Animal Alley™ collection, I felt I’d gotten the whole thing under control. When cool Monsters, Inc.™ toys came out last month, I didn’t go looking for Sully or the one-eyed critter with the voice of Billy Crystal. And though I pleaded successfully just last week with a Wendy’s burgergirl to find me a tiny stuffed Grinch™ with a red heart that glows upon squeezing its abdomen, I thought I’d finally grown up.

Until Burger King.

Maybe you’ve heard about the Lord of the Rings toys there. Each kid’s meal toy contains a plastic figurine of a character like Frodo or Bilbo or Gandalf. The character pops into a plastic base with a little switch on it. When you hit the switch, the character lights up or utters a line from the movie like “Give the ring to Frodo” or “Power can be held in the smallest of things.”

But—and here’s the real marketing genius at work—the figures and bases also all fit together and snap into the base of the Ring of Power. Then, when you turn the ring slowly, it activates each of these talking, lighting-up figures consecutively. I ordered four meals for my three kids and myself. We received four different figures. I wasn’t halfway through my fries when I realized I needed to possess the Ring of Power. I went back up to order another meal. That’s when I began to lose my sense of self.

“Can I get four cheeseburger kid’s meals?” I asked. “And can I get the Ring of Power, Frodo, Strider and Gandalf?”

My goal was to get the important characters before they were gone. Later, I could come back and fill in the extra elves and monsters and dwarves. To complete the set, you need to buy 19 kid’s meals. This doesn’t merely require money and an unhealthful appetite; it also takes patience and dedication.

“I had a hard time finding them all, and I work here,” says Heidi, a BK employee who helped me nab Pippin and Gandalf and Arwen the next day when I went back for four more cheeseburger meals. Heidi actually went into the back and opened up a new box of toys for me. Heidi says she managed to get the whole set for her 5-year-old. Still, all this hunting made me late for that meeting. Addictions are such a hassle.

I’m happy to report that I’m doing a bit better. I purchased only three kid’s meals Monday. I lack five characters, though. My toy isn’t complete. The need to collect stuff—the ragged stepchild of greed—overwhelms. Resistance seems futile.

As the figurine of Gimli growls when activated by the Ring of Power, “What are we waiting for?”

Looks like cheeseburgers for dinner again, kids.