Sometimes big companies run promotions that require them to give away a ton more than the bargained for. It’s hard to think even with all of those employees, big companies sometimes overlook huge gaping holes in their promotions. One such promotional distaster was one McDonald’s ran during the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
In 1984, the Olympics came back to the United States, and McDonald’s went all-in with their sponsorship of the games. To show their confidence in the U.S. Olympic team, Mickey-D’s came up with the “If the U.S. wins, you win!” promotion. Customers got scratch pieces with an Olympic event printed on them. If the Americans won a gold, silver or bronze medal in that event, the customer would get a free Big Mac, fries or Coke, depending on the medal.
Now, no business goes into a “win a free _” promotion without having a fairly specific idea of how much free merchandise is going to go out the door. McDonald’s probably looked at the U.S. medal count from the last games we had participated in, in 1976. In that year, the U.S. won 94 medals, 34 of them gold. After all, it was the Soviets and their allies who dominated the games every time (in 1976, Russia won 125 medals, and East Germany won 90, with 40 gold medals).
We have to go back to 1976 because the U.S. didn’t participate in 1980, since the Olympics were held in Moscow and the U.S. boycotted the games because they hated the Russians. But that should have been a cue for McDonald’s — since the 1984 games were being held in the U.S., the U.S.S.R. and friends returned the favor and boycotted. Remember how we said Russians and East Germans finished ahead of the U.S. in 1976? Both of them would be sitting out the 1984 games altogether.
With the Eastern Bloc competition out of the way, the U.S. wound up winning significantly more medals as the last time around — a mind-boggling 174 medals total. Instead of the 34 golds the U.S. won in 1976, the 1984 games saw the Americans bring home 83.
Which meant McDonald’s had to give away much more food than they expected, including more than twice as many valuable Big Macs. There were rumors that locations were running out of Big Macs… that the customers didn’t pay a dime for.