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During the 1984 Olympics, McDonald’s Lost Millions of Dollars Due to a Failed Special Offer

Photo Credit: Tim Boyle / Getty Images andODD ANDERSEN / AFP via Getty Images and
Photo Credit: Tim Boyle / Getty Images andODD ANDERSEN / AFP via Getty Images and

In 1984, the Summer Olympics were held in Los Angeles. Like many other corporations, McDonald’s looked to capitalize on the event and attempted to repeat the success of a promotion they’d used for the 1976 Summer Olympics. The promotion didn’t go entirely as planned, however, and by the end of the Olympics, it actually cost the fast food chain millions of dollars. 

‘When you win, McDonald’s loses’

A tray with Big Mac, french fries, and Coca-Cola is seen on a table in this illustration photo taken in McDonald's restaurant in Krakow, Poland on November 9, 2022.
A Big Mac, fries, and Coca-Cola: the three promoted items during the 1984 Summer Olympics. (Photo Credit: Jakub Porzycki / NurPhoto / Getty Images)

The campaign was simple: “When the US Wins, You Win.” Across the United States, McDonald’s scratch cards were distributed with different Olympic events on them. After an American athlete won in an event depicted, as the slogan claimed, customers could take the cards to a McDonald’s location and redeem them for a free item. Each medal corresponded with a different food item. A gold medal was worth a Big Mac, while silver earned some french fries, and bronze won a Coca-Cola

This had been a successful promotion in 1976 during the Summer Olympics in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Over the course of those games, the US won a total of 94 medals, which included 34 gold medals. In 1984, it looked to be another great opportunity for the company. Unfortunately for McDonald’s, the promotion did not go entirely according to plan. 

The Soviet boycott

Performers spell out Welcome on the stadium infield as balloons are released above them during the opening ceremony for the XXIII Olympic Games on 28 July 1984 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, California, United States.
The opening ceremony of the 1984 Summer Olympic Games on July 28, 1984, at the Los Angeles Coliseum. (Photo Credit: Steve Powell / Allsport / Getty Images)

In protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the United States led a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, which included a total of 65 countries not taking part. In response to this, in 1984, the Soviet Union led a 14-nation boycott. This left the American athletes almost unopposed since some of their fiercest opponents didn’t attend. 

The American Olympic team was very successful in the summer games, winning a total of 174 medals, with 83 of these being gold. McDonald’s quickly felt the consequences of their special promotion. The more the Americans won, the more customers came for their free items. Locations across the US faced shortages, and as reported by the New York Times, 6,600 ran out of Big Macs.

A Southern California spokesman for McDonald’s told the Los Angeles Times, “With all the gold medals that the US is winning, we’re swamped… this is the most successful [McDonald’s promotion], but it’s also the most costly.”

When the Olympics were finished, McDonald’s was very quiet about how much the promotion had cost them. Even today, the company has not verified the exact amount. However, they have said that it was the most expensive promotion in the franchise’s history, and marketing experts have estimated that it cost them millions of dollars, especially as the items were not discounted but given away completely free

McDonald’s and the Olympics

People walk past a McDonalds outlet in the Gangneung Olympic Village in Gangneung on February 8, 2018, ahead of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games.
A McDonald’s outlet in the Guangneung Olympic Village during the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. (Photo Credit: Brendan Smialowski / AFP Photo / Getty Images)

Despite the promotion backfiring, similar campaigns took place in 1988 and 1996. Fortunately for McDonald’s, the promotions after 1984 saw far more success than before. The partnership the company had with the Olympics, which had lasted for over 40 years, has recently come to an end, however. 

In 2017, while keeping some marketing rights, McDonald’s decided to break off its partnership with the International Olympic Committee. As quoted in the Los Angeles Times, IOC executive Timo Lumme said, “In today’s rapidly evolving business landscape, we understand that McDonald’s is looking to focus on different business priorities.”

More from us: McDonald’s Quietly Retired Ronald McDonald As Its Mascot – Here’s Why

The now-infamous 1984 promotion that saw millions of dollars of food given away for free did not see the corporation known for its golden arches win any gold for itself.

Ryan McLachlan

Ryan McLachlan is a historian and content writer for Hive Media. He received his Bachelor of Arts in History and Classical Studies and his Master of Arts in History from the University of Western Ontario. Ryan’s research focused on military history, and he is particularly interested in the conflicts fought by the United Kingdom from the Napoleonic Wars to the Falklands War.

Ryan’s other historical interests include naval and maritime history, the history of aviation, the British Empire, and the British Monarchy. He is also interested in the lives of Sir Winston Churchill and Admiral Lord Nelson. Ryan enjoys teaching, reading, writing, and sharing history with anyone who will listen.

In his spare time, he enjoys watching period dramas such as Murdoch Mysteries and Ripper Street and also enjoys reading classical literature and Shakespeare. He also plays football and is an afternoon tea connoisseur.