Sometimes, the best of ideas in advertising suffer the worst of fates. Such an example occurred in 1982.

The McDonald’s Quarter Pounder had been a part of the national menu for exactly one decade. The success prompted A&W to jump on the “more meat than bun” bandwagon and they had a new campaign idea – go bigger.

Instead of trying to match the quarter-pounder, A&W offered up the first-ever 1/3 pound burger. A&W management spent a record amount of advertising dollars in television and radio spots to make the public aware of their new big burger.

For some reason unbeknownst, the marketing campaign was failing and as advertising expenses were still increasing, A&W needed to know why – but they were struggling to find the answer.

Not Fond of Fractions

sign saying 3 out of 2 people have trouble with fractionsWhat the marketing team at A&W never anticipated was the collective mathematical IQ of fractionally-challenged America.

A&W developed customer focus groups to learn more about their customers and why they were neglecting the new beefy burgers.

What did they find out?

Americans weren’t understanding that 1/3 of a pound was more than 1/4 of a pound. Since “3” was less than “4”, people were driving right past A&W to wait in line at McDonalds. They thought they were getting screwed!

Alfred Taubman owned and operated an A&W restaurant in the 80s and he writes of the experience,

“Well, it turned out that customers preferred the taste of our fresh beef over traditional fast-food hockey pucks. Hands down, we had a better product. But there was a serious problem. More than half of the participants in the Yankelovich focus groups questioned the price of our burger. “Why,” they asked, “should we pay the same amount for a third of a pound of meat as we do for a quarter-pound of meat at McDonald’s? You’re overcharging us.” Honestly. People thought a third of a pound was less than a quarter of a pound. After all, three is less than four!”

Let’s hope we’re doing a better job in educating our children.