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Did Third-of-a-Pound Burger Fail Because People Didn't Understand Fractions?

Fractions, man.

Published Jun 17, 2022

EFFINGHAM, IL - MARCH 30:  A Quarter Pounder hamburger is served at a McDonald's restaurant on March 30, 2017 in Effingham, Illinois. McDonald's announced today that it will start making the burger with fresh beef patties instead of the frozen beef that it currently uses.  (Photo Illustration by Scott Olson/Getty Images) (Getty Images)
Image Via Getty Images

Ah, fractions. Who needs 'em? Not burger devotees. According to Canadian news outlet CBC, the famous McDonald's Quarter Pounder burger once had a larger cousin, the Third-of-a-Pound Burger.

Granted, "Third-of-a-Pound Burger" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. But CBC reported the burger flopped for a different reason. More than half of the people surveyed about why they didn't buy the burger, which cost the same as the Quarter Pounder, said it was because they were being charged the same price for a smaller burger.

The Third-of-a-Pound Burger was developed in the early 1980s to compete with the Quarter Pounder, according to The New York Times, which reported in 2014:

One of the most vivid arithmetic failings displayed by Americans occurred in the early 1980s, when the A&W restaurant chain released a new hamburger to rival the McDonald’s Quarter Pounder. With a third-pound of beef, the A&W burger had more meat than the Quarter Pounder; in taste tests, customers preferred A&W’s burger. And it was less expensive. A lavish A&W television and radio marketing campaign cited these benefits. Yet instead of leaping at the great value, customers snubbed it.

Only when the company held customer focus groups did it become clear why. The Third Pounder presented the American public with a test in fractions. And we failed. Misunderstanding the value of one-third, customers believed they were being overcharged. Why, they asked the researchers, should they pay the same amount for a third of a pound of meat as they did for a quarter-pound of meat at McDonald’s. The “4” in “¼,” larger than the “3” in “⅓,” led them astray.

The Quarter Pounder was rolled out in 1973.

Sources:

Green, Elizabeth. “Why Do Americans Stink at Math?” The New York Times, 23 July 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/27/magazine/why-do-americans-stink-at-math.html.

CBC Radio. “How Failing at Fractions Saved the Quarter Pounder | CBC Radio.” CBC, 8 August 2021, https://www.cbc.ca/radio/undertheinfluence/how-failing-at-fractions-saved-the-quarter-pounder-1.5979468.

Novak, Matt. “What’s Bigger: 1/3 Pound Burgers or 1/4 Pound Burgers?” Gizmodo, 25 July 2014, https://gizmodo.com/whats-bigger-1-3-pound-burgers-or-1-4-pound-burgers-1611118517.

Taubman. McDonald’s New Third-Pounder May Not Add Up – Threshold Resistance. https://thresholdresistance.com/2015/04/16/mcdonalds-new-third-pounder-may-not-add-up/. Accessed 17 June 2022.

Bethania Palma is a journalist from the Los Angeles area who started her career as a daily newspaper reporter and has covered everything from crime to government to national politics. She has written for ... read more

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