From an actual McDonald's ad

Chasing the Bucket

Posted June 14, 2016, under Gee Whillickers!

Most people, when they think of marketing, usually think in terms of actual advertising – TV spots, billboards, magazine ads, and the like. But there is a wider perspective. Think of marketing as a company’s dialogue with its clientele, finding ways to encourage them to buy products. Like any dialogue, the message can be very obvious – or very subtle, almost subliminal.

One of the best examples of this in America is the rise and fall of supersizing.

Belt v Supersize: Dawn of Obesity

A large order of fries from McDonalds in 1970 is the same as what you’ll get asking for a small in 2015. Cup offerings for soda at the same chain ballooned from the 7oz standard of 1955 to the modern supersize being six times larger at 42oz. Even the kid’s menu soda these days is 12oz.

Source: Mother Jones

How did this happen? Well, in the 1960s, a man named David Wallerstein was trying to increase popcorn profits in his movie theaters. He discovered that people didn’t want to buy more than one bag of popcorn because they’d look like gluttons. His solution: Offer larger portions at a slightly higher price. It worked – popcorn sales spiked.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because that’s become standard practice in every theater in the country.

Wallerstein became a director of McDonald’s in the late ’60s. When the company – and the country – reeled in the economic upheavals of the 1970s, he knew what to do. He had the chain translate his popcorn idea over to french fries, and supersizing was born.

Unintended Consequences

Wallerstein’s idea worked again, and it’s easy to understand why. Bulk purchasing can be a sound financial strategy, especially when money is tight.

This is marketing pushing the market. As the strategy caught fire, consumers everywhere were encouraged to eat ever-increasing quantities for just pennies more. For the sake of value.

But French fries, soda, and popcorn are not the same kind of commodity as toilet paper or light bulbs. As we’ve seen since the ’80s, there are dire consequences to thinking of junk food as “value.”

Now, we’re not suggesting that McDonald’s is solely to blame for a reported two-thirds of Americans being overweight or obese. 7-11 also deserves some criticism. That thing is bigger than her head, and it’s not even the biggest size available.

There are plenty of other contributing factors, but the fact remains: Between 1962–2006 (the Age of the Supersize), obesity in people aged 20-74 more than doubled. This wasn’t lost on the media, and every media outlet in mid-2000s America threw up huge scare headlines about the Obesity Epidemic. Few companies came under fire as directly as McDonald’s.

Turning the Tables

What happened next is a lot more complicated than we have the space to get into here. The upshot is that the consequences of making a virtue of gluttony included the industry appearing to value profit over human lives. That’s not a good look for anyone.

This is the market reacting back on marketing. People protested and stayed away, and agencies started investigations. The industry was struggling once more.

It’s up to you whether you believe these corporations changed out of altruism or simply the bottom line – but they did make changes. McDonald’s phased out their supersize offerings, and instead incorporated healthier choices into menus.

But they have an uphill battle. For one thing, despite the outcry, people don’t go to McDonald’s for healthy food. For another, some of their salads have more calories than their burgers.

They’re still trying to do the right thing, though. Adweek recently reported that the fast food giant is testing out a smaller version of the Big Mac, called the “Mac Jr.” Oh, wait. They’re also experimenting with a “Grand” Mac?

…Never mind, then.


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