As I drove up to the window to pick up my food, I couldn't help but feel a tinge of excitement.
I wasn't purchasing food. I was buying the three seconds of anticipation derived from peeling off the little slip and entering the code online.
Heck, I didn't actually believe I would win anything.
But why, then, was I even here? I don't eat fast food. The value of anything I actually had a shot at winning was surely less valuable than the time I was wasting thinking about it.
So, why did I drive all the way to McDonald's, wait five minutes in the drive-through line, and waste ten bucks ordering food that wasn't even good for me?
McDonald's Monopoly made me do it.
Most of us realize that it's a marketing campaign, and we know it's supposed to get us to buy more McDonald's. But, in reality, it's much more complex than most of us ever would have thought.
McDonald's Monopoly makes use of a number of psychological triggers that cause us to go to McDonald's more often, spend more money when we're there, and come back much more frequently than we would otherwise.
Here's how it works.
Step One: Getting You Through the Door and Into the Game
When you consider that McDonald's has over 34,000 restaurants worldwide which serve a whopping 60-70 million people each day, getting people through the doors might not seem like a significant problem.
However, the McDonald's Monopoly promotional material is designed to play off the same key psychological triggers which are activated by casinos and the lottery.
By highlighting past winners, making sure the consumer is cognizant of how "1 in 4 Wins!", and using sales copy such as "You could win", McDonald's is effectively combatting our initial objections to getting involved.
Past winners serve as social proof, showing you that you can win just like they did.
The high chances of winning causes consumers to believe they actually have a shot at the $1,000,000 prize (despite the 1 in 4 referring to smaller prizes like 40 MyCokeRewards points).
And the idea that "someone has to win it" leads to a question well-known to lottery addicts: "Why not me?"
As if this wasn't already enough, couple it with McDonald's usual mass marketing to consumers, and you have a potent combination.
Fast food is already a cheap and easy purchase, and if a consumer goes into it with the notion he or she might win something, then "Hey, why not? I need to eat lunch somewhere."
So, people drive through or walk into their local McDonald's (often conveniently located right near where they're going), unaware of the dark magic about to be brought upon them.
Step Two: Getting You to Spend More
Savvy McDonald's Monopoly players know precisely which menu items provide the greatest chance of winning.
So, they know better than to just order a regular old combo meal with the medium french fries and drink.
By putting four Monopoly pieces on the large fries and zero on the medium, McDonald's forces the consumer to heuristically conclude that the large fries are "obviously" the better choice.
However, the large soda doesn't have any Monopoly pieces whereas the MEDIUM soda DOES.
This creates a conflict.
Essentially, you can't order a regular package deal and get both the large fries and medium soda, so you get charged more than you would otherwise.
Further, as a 20 Piece Chicken McNuggets costs only marginally more than a 10 Piece, AND it comes with two bonus Monopoly pieces, the likelihood of consumers being upsold is sure to increase during this promotion.
And though we as the consumers aren't necessarily able to see this, McDonald's likely uses the Monopoly pieces to push food and drinks with higher margins but less popularity, thus increasing their net revenue and altering future ordering behaviour.
So, you order your Big Mac, Medium Coke, and Large Fries, and sit down to eat.
You pull out your phone, and enter the codes online.
You don't REALLY expect to win anything, but hey, "why not me?", right?
Hey, look! You were wrong!
You actually WON something!
40 MyCokeRewards points? Alright!
The prize isn't nearly exciting as the rush of having won something.
Obviously, it won't happen again, but it was pretty cool.
Despite what you tell yourself, deep down you still feel that there's a remote chance. After all, if you won once, why couldn't you win again?
Step Three: Getting You to Come Back Again... and again... and again...
This is where the true evil genius comes into play.
Like all well designed games, McDonald's Monopoly is structured to give consumers a series of small victories which trains them to keep playing.
On my second trip to McDonald's since the inception of the game, I got a Park Place piece.
Holy cow! Park Place! Do you know what this means?
All I needed was one more piece... just one more piece... to win ONE MILLION DOLLARS.
And oh my goodness, look at what else I have here!
One more piece to win $1,000! One more piece to win $5,000! One more piece to... hey, wait a second here.
It turns out the game is engineered to provide you with a sense that you actually have a shot at winning, while in reality, your chances are miniscule at best.
As astonishing as it was for me to pick up that Park Place piece, it was nothing compared to when I delved a bit deeper into the official rules.
"The approximate odds of collecting Park Place are 1 in 11; the approximate odds of collecting Boardwalk are 1 in 602,490,060..."
This does a number of things to our poor little brains:
First, it makes victory seem like it's in reach. The average player isn't aware of these odds. He or she thinks just one more piece will win $1,000,000.
Next, it plays on something called the Sunk Cost Fallacy.
This is the phenomenon that fueled the success of online games like FarmVille.
Essentially, once you start accumulating those Monopoly pieces, you feel like it would be a waste not to collect more.
After all, you are already so close... or, at least, that's what it seems like.
This is similar to what's known as the Endowed Progress Effect (which is basically just a fancy way of saying "we're more likely to do something when we feel it's easier to accomplish").
Last, by feeding us random little victories, the game is creating a cognitive reward loop.
Every time you peel off one of those little McDonald's Monopoly pieces, your brain releases a little bit of dopamine (one of the "feel good" chemicals).
This is the same chemical that is produced by various addictive recreational drugs.
In essence, a consumer can become addicted to this "reward high" the same way people become addicted to the lottery, gambling, or drugs.
Realistically, many people go into McDonald's namely to participate in Monopoly with the food as an afterthought.
After awhile, they begin to seek out the positive reinforcement generated by playing the game.
And of course, it doesn't hurt that McDonald's also throws in a few free burger prizes here and there to produce even more repeat business.
But, the craziest thing?
The brilliance doesn't even end when the contest does.
Step Four: Paying Out the Prizes
According to this enlightening blog post by Joshua Kennon, the $1,000,000 payout doesn't even truly cost McDonald's $1,000,000.
As it's an annuity paid out in $50,000 per year sums over 20 years, the company will continue to see returns on the rest of the money for the duration of the 20 years until the last penny is paid out.
When you take into account the ROI on McDonald's investments, that means the payout doesn't even really cost them anything but an opportunity to make more money.
So, in the end, McDonald's Monopoly costs next to nothing, manipulates the consumer into spending more money, increases repeat business, and is a cash cow no matter which way you look at it.
And now that you're aware of it, you're not going to fall for it anymore, right?
Well, I don't know about you, but even with this knowledge, McDonald's Monopoly still gets me. Every. Single. Time.
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