35 Years Ago: McDonald’s ‘Mindboggling’ Olympic Giveaway Backfire
In many ways, the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles represented a major change for the modern Games. The sporting event had long been noted for its financial losses, a lasting burden on the vast majority of host cities. In a move never seen before, Los Angeles brought corporate sponsors on board to help shoulder the Games’ costs. The decision proved profitable, as the ‘84 Olympics earned more than $200 million thanks largely to the influx of endorsements and advertising. However, one major promotion continues to live on in infamy and it belongs to McDonald’s.
The concept of the fast food giant's campaign was simple; upon purchasing an item, a McDonald’s customer would receive a scratch-off card with an Olympic event on it. If the American team won gold in that event, the patron would get a free Big Mac. A silver earned the patron french fries, while bronze won a free soft drink. Pairing patriotism with capitalism, McDonald’s believed they had the recipe for a successful promotion. Commercials would sell customers on a simple phrase: “If the U.S. Wins, You Win.”
Surprisingly, this wasn’t the first time McDonald’s had built a promotion around free food and medal counts. The company embarked on a similar campaign for the 1976 Olympics, albeit with less publicity. That year’s Games, held in Montreal, saw the U.S.A. place third in the overall medal count. The two countries who finished ahead of them were the Soviet Union and East Germany.
It’s likely that McDonald’s looked at the ‘76 results when estimating the number of prizes they expected to give away via their ‘84 promotion. After all, America boycotted the 1980 Games held in Moscow, due to Soviet warfare in Afghanistan. As such, ‘76 represented the most recent Olympics to reference. What their number-crunchers clearly didn’t anticipate was another boycott.
Due in part to America’s actions four years prior, the Soviet Union, East Germany and many other communist nations boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics. With these sports powerhouse nations no longer participating, America’s competition was far less daunting.
The U.S. went on to dominate the watered-down field. The Americans took home 83 gold medals, 61 silver and 30 bronze for a whopping 174 total medals. For comparison's sake, the U.S. won 34, 35 and 20, respectively, in Montreal for a total of 94.
McDonald’s catchphrase proved prophetic. As Team U.S.A. won, so did fast food patrons, and they did so at a staggering rate. A 1984 New York Times article described the number of prizes given away as “mindboggling.” The newspaper reported that some McDonald’s franchises even ran out of Big Macs due to the overwhelming amount of giveaways. While this claim was not verified by the company, a spokesperson admitted there was “a real gold rush at McDonald’s.”
“We may be giving away more product, but that means more customers for McDonald's,” asserted Chuck Rubner, a representative for the company at the time. Though the fast food conglomerate never revealed how much money it lost on their Olympic promotion, guesses have been in the millions.
Since 1984, the marketing campaign has become the butt of jokes. Most famously, a similar promotion appeared within The Simpsons. In the 1992 episode titled "Lisa's First Word," Krusty Burger offered a similar promotion based around Olympic events. The fictional burger chain banked heavily that team U.S.A. would lose to the Soviet and East German teams. When those countries boycotted, Krusty Burger, and its spokesperson clown, lost millions.
The Olympics will return to Los Angeles in 2028, giving some people hope that McDonald’s may revive their famous promotion. It appears, however, that such a move is not meant to be. In 2017 the company announced that it would no longer be an Olympic sponsor, ending the relationship more than four decades after it began.