During the 1980s, the owner of the restaurant franchise, A&W, launched a new 1/3 pound burger to compete with McDonald’s 1/4 pound burger or ‘Quarter Pounder.’ A&W launched a ‘Third is the Word‘ campaign to advertise their new Third Pounder. It didn’t sell, even though it offered more meat for the same price as McDonald’s 1/4 pound burger, and was purportedly preferred in terms of taste. The reason that is given for its failure is Americans’ misunderstanding of fractions. Is this true?
According to A&W Restaurants, this is true. Or at least, there is evidence that it is true. The A&W Third Pounder never sold like the company thought it would even though they advertised it heavily on TV and radio. So, they hired a market research firm to try to figure out why the burger was failing.
The firm conducted a focus group and found that around half of the people surveyed thought that the A&W 1/3 pound burger was smaller than McDonald’s 1/4 pounder! “Why should we pay the same amount for a third of a pound of meat as we do for a quarter-pound of meat?” they said.
The customers were simply reacting to the size of the denominator. Three is smaller than four so a 1/4 pound burger must be larger. They failed to recognize that the magnitude of a fraction depends on the relationship between its numerator and denominator. The higher the gap between these components, the smaller the fraction. Of course, a simple visualization would have helped. If you divide a pie into thirds instead of fourths, you get larger pieces.
Now, this doesn’t definitively prove why the burger failed. After all, only half of the focus group responded with this mistaken notion about the relative size of the burgers. However, it is the strongest signal the company had as to the reason for the failure.
A&W knew that they couldn’t solve the problem by teaching the public how to understand fractions. So, they changed the name of the Third Pounder to ‘The Papa Burger.’ This still remains their signature burger to this day, even though the franchise has changed hands several times over the years. It is now owned by A Great American Brands, LLC. Contrary to popular misconceptions, A&W restaurants have not disappeared. There are around 1,000 restaurants existing in the U.S. and abroad (626 in the U.S.)