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’
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
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
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.”
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.