Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Eager to Believe: Stupid Americans and Smart Corporations

Jerry Stratton, July 15, 2020

How many leftists to screw in a light bulb?

It seemed as though the left’s war against the middle class ramped up heavily during the COVID-19 shutdown. Whether it was denigrating middle-class workers, who are less able to work from home than the information class, or denigrating farmers and gardeners, who recognize that nature cannot be shut down and if you want to eat in the fall you must plant in the spring, they seemed to go all out attacking anyone who pointed out the insane nature of shutting down the very people we need most to help us through a crisis.

But I don’t think any of their social media jibes have been as blatant as this meme about A&W’s third-pound hamburger failure that I saw on Facebook during the shutdown:

“Describe Americans using a single picture”

Me: [photo of a hamburger]

[Text:] In the 1980s, A&W tried to compete with the McDonald’s Quarter Pounder by selling a 1/3 pound burger at lower cost. The product failed, because most customers thought ¼ pound was bigger.1

Another weird thing about Americans is that there’s a special class that would rather believe that the majority of their fellow citizens are uneducated, than that a person—writing an unverified side note in a memoir—might misremember a focus group session from one or two decades past that they didn’t see and no longer have the report on.

Do a google search on third vs. quarter pound burgers, and you’ll see everything from “That’s not how fractions work” to “stop those people from reproducing.” The very article the quote probably came from is a New York Times article from 2014 titled “Why do Americans stink at math?

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.

What you won’t see except in a very few places is anyone questioning a social media meme that sounds a lot like a classic urban legend. The best quote from the few skeptics I could find was that if this were true, someone would have come out with a ⅕-pound burger and really cleaned up the market. That didn’t happen.

The only source for the New York Times story is supposedly from the memoirs of then-owner of A&W Alfred Taubman, in a memoir he wrote in 2007 years after the failure of the burger. I say supposedly because this New York Times article is a prime example of the failure of the American media: it is filled with unsourced accusations and anecdotes. That the A&W anecdote came from Taubman’s memoir is from a tweet by the author, not from the article itself.

Which means that the meme is coming from an unsourced New York Times article which took it from a memoir written up to twenty-five years after the fact by a guy who wasn’t there and at best saw a report of the focus group results.

What did Taubman write in his memoir?

Of course, not all my creative efforts to redefine and reenergize A&W were successful. In fact, one experience in particular still leaves a very bad taste in my mouth. We were aggressively marketing a one-third-pound hamburger for the same price as a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder. But despite our best efforts, including first-rate TV and radio promotional spots, they just weren’t selling. Perplexed, we called in the renowned market research firm Yankelovich, Skelly, and White to conduct focus groups and competitive taste tests.

Well, it turned out that customers preferred the taste of our fresh beef over traditional fast-food hockey pucks. Hands down, we had a better product. But there was a serious problem. More than half of the participants in the Yankelovich focus groups questioned the price of our burger. “Why,” they asked, “should we pay the same amount for a third of a pound of meat as we do for a quarter-pound of meat at McDonald’s? You’re overcharging us.” Honestly. People thought a third of a pound was less than a quarter of a pound. After all, three is less than four!

We tried a half-pound burger (two patties to the pound) for just ten cents more than a Quarter Pounder. That wasn’t a big hit either.

Needless to say, I was depressed by this experience, enough so, that I started to get more involved in K-12 education, teacher training, and public school reform. There is an important lesson to be learned from all this. Sometimes the messages we send to our customers through marketing and sales information are not as clear and compelling as we think they are. A product benefit you value may not be high on the list of the consumer’s needs. Research is worth the cost, especially if you are investing millions of dollars in an advertising campaign that could confuse more than convince. The customer is always right, even if he or she never mastered fractions!

The moment I read Taubman’s line about “not as clear and compelling”, I remembered something from twenty-five years ago, too. In college I took a marketing course, and one of the books we used was David Ogilvy’s wonderful Ogilvy on Advertising. Ogilvy didn’t like comparison advertising, because people don’t pay close attention to commercials. And listening to comparative advertising without full attention, it is easy to confuse which company the ad is extolling. Was the real problem that A&W’s ads sounded like ads for McDonald’s? After his jab at customers who never mastered fractions, Taubman went on to say:

We also came to another important conclusion. While working hard to differentiate A&W Restaurants from the frozen-food emporiums like McDonald’s, it didn’t help to focus our marketing on a direct comparison with these competitors. That just reinforced the notion that we were one of them. By naming our product a “third-pounder,” we framed our offering within the context of the powerful McDonald’s Quarter Pounder. That diminished the more important messages of fresh beef, healthy menu choices, and frosted mugs of the best root beer in the world.

That lesson sounds far more likely to have been the real takeaway that Yankelovich provided. It could have come straight out of Ogilvy’s book. It is almost always more powerful to advertise what you do, than to advertise what your competitors do.

Beyond that, though, the anecdote doesn’t make sense, and not just because no one capitalized on it by coming out with a ⅕-pound burger.

  1. “After all, three is less than four!” The problem with this logic is that the competition wasn’t between a third pounder and a fourth pounder. It was between a third-pounder and a quarter pounder. For this logic to work out, the customers who were so innumerate as to think a third is less than a fourth must also have been numerate enough to realize that a quarter is a fourth.
  2. The logic cannot apply to the failure of the half-pound burger. Quarter dollars and half dollars are common pieces of currency. That the half-pound burger also failed indicates that something else was clearly going on that didn’t have to do with nomenclature.
  3. The takeaway that Taubman reports they took from the focus group indirectly contradicts what he claims about the innumeracy of the participants. If the problem is that customers think your burger is smaller than your competitors, it is essential that you show them the competition. You must tell potential customers that your burger is bigger. That’s the exception to it being more effective to talk up your own qualities than to talk down your competitor’s quality. If people think your burger is small, you can hype its bigness. But if they think your burger is smaller than McDonald’s, you have to provide a comparison. But according to Taubman, the takeaway was that A&W should not compare their burgers to their competitor’s burgers.

My conclusion is that Taubman is either leaving something out of the results, playing up a side story to make his book more interesting, or remembering it in a way that downplays bad decisions by A&W’s management. Or some combination of all three.

It is extremely unlikely that Taubman was present at the focus group, because that’s not how focus groups work. The reason companies hire a third party such as Yankelovich, Skelly, and White to perform a focus group is to avoid contaminating the results by having management present. Taubman is responding to a written report of the focus group, or, even more likely, from a summary of the written report delivered orally by one of his employees.

Focus groups are not survey tools. They’re meant to provide insight on an issue or problem, and are not meant to provide a survey of a population of people. Taubman reports the innumeracy finding as if it were survey results, that “People thought a third of a pound was less than a quarter of a pound”. But “people” did not. Very specific members of a focus group did—if he’s reporting what happened correctly—which means after direction by the research team or after prompting by one of the other members of the focus group.

What is more likely the case is that one of the participants suggested that as a possibility. Then, “over half” of the focus group agreed that it was a possibility. Looking for possibilities is one of the purposes of a focus group.

All of that is speculation assuming that Taubman is accurately remembering what happened. But Taubman’s memoir was published in 2007. I have no idea when the A&W Third-Pounder was introduced. Notice in the quote from the New York Times, it merely says “in the early 1980s”. Taubman does not say when this happened. He immediately follows up his anecdote with selling A&W—that they had found a buyer in 1994. The previous couple of pages before the anecdote do not mention a year or even a decade.2 According to Wikipedia, Taubman bought A&E in 1982, which would mean that this focus group cannot have happened before 1982. And yet at least one of the reprintings of this anecdote says “In 1980…”.

Even if the focus group took place in 1994 and Taubman wrote his memoir in 2006, he’s still reporting on a part of the result that was not the takeaway—remember, the takeaway was to not compare with their competitors—from more than a decade later. Very possibly up to a quarter of a century later.

Now, of course, it may have happened just as Taubman describes. But the evidence for it is very thin and made thinner by the poor reporting on it in venues such as the New York Times. The real story is just how little the story is questioned. It plays into the way the left sees America and especially America’s middle class.

Interestingly, the way the story is told directly contradicts another complaint from the same people, at least in my feed: Americans want everything supersized. And yet both the slightly larger and the much larger burgers failed. It sounds more like there is a class of people so eager to believe that Americans are stupid that they aren’t thinking their memes through.

And so they believe something that reads a whole lot like any number of urban legends they’d scoff at (I hope) otherwise. They believe a corporation that provides a product, fast food, they normally disdain. All in their desperate need to believe that Americans don’t reject the left’s solutions for valid reasons. It’s not that the left’s solutions are stupid, it’s that Americans are too stupid to understand their brilliance.

Ironically, I saw this meme from a friend on the left during the COVID-19 epidemic, when the same people were trying to justify continuing the shutdown after we’d “flattened the curve” based on rising numbers of confirmed cases during a period of increased testing. The same person who posted the hamburger meme linked, a few days later, to an article titled “Texas cases of COVID-19 increasing by thousands since reopening”. But the article was wrong—the data it was citing reflected greater testing.

“How can the curve be flattening when the more we test, the more cases we find” is a lot like “a third is smaller than a fourth”.

The sad part is, the latter probably never happened and wouldn’t have harmed anyone if it had. But the former killed thousands by cutting people off from their regular health care, and cutting vulnerable people off from family and friends.

In response to 2020 in Photos: For photos, memes, and perhaps other quick notes sent from my mobile device or written on the fly during 2020.

  1. It was very difficult to reproduce the meme’s text exactly. I wanted to either use ⅓ or spell out 1/4. Also, I really, really, dislike using the inch symbol in place of smart quotes.

  2. I’m going by the Look Inside feature on Amazon, which fortuitously provides the pages with and around this anecdote.

  1. <- My Car My Abortion