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How McDonald’s designs its wildly popular sweepstakes

In the 1970s, the fast food company unveiled a novel new game to customers. The prize? Diamonds. Yes, diamonds.

How McDonald’s designs its wildly popular sweepstakes
[Photo: courtesy McDonald’s]

On Halloween, McDonald’s wrapped up its first sweepstakes in nearly two years: Trick. Treat. Win! The scale of the game was almost unfathomable. It awarded 140 million prizes to people, ranging from free McFlurrys to televisions to Hyundai Santa Fes, just for buying a meal. Since it featured QR-coded game pieces that required an app to unlock, McDonald’s leveraged the promotion to coax 5 million people to download the official McDonald’s app in the last week alone, propelling itself to the second spot in the App Store.

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[Image: McDonald’s]
“[We’re] sitting there with YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat,” says Kenny Mitchell, McDonald’s VP of marketing. “That’s pretty impressive for a food and beverage company.”

McDonald’s pioneered fast food sweepstakes, today a promotional category unto itself. The company has used these limited-time games to boost customer spending for 40 years, offering the chance to win luxuries ranging from actual diamonds to free hash browns. The success of this tact is obvious in retrospect: People love winning stuff! But McDonald’s birthed an entire genre of sales tactics when it started giving out gold in the 1970s, and over the course of four decades of these contests, the company has learned a lot about customer behavior–not just how to tease the prospect of winning, but how to make everyone who plays feel like a winner to keep them coming back.

[Photo: courtesy McDonald’s]
The “peel and play” games that McDonald’s is now known for kicked off nationally in 1978 with Guess the Weight of the 50 Pound Hash Brown. Imagined as a promotion for hash browns that were a new menu item for McDonald’s at the time that Americans weren’t so sure about yet, the game introduced the mechanics of peel-off stickers with scratch cards. Players were prompted by the sticker with a multiple choice to guess the weight of the hash brown. The whole idea was a joke–of course the answer was “50 pounds”–but any guess would earn you a free hash brown anyway.

Another promotion that ran that year in northern California and Nevada was dubbed Big Mac Gold Rush, and it gave customers scratch-off game pieces that they could affix to a game board. The prize? Up to $125,000 in cash or gold. The game itself was essentially just modified Bingo, played one trip to the golden arches at a time. The idea scratched a cultural itch: In the mid ’70s, much of the world was in full-blown Bingo fever, as the game reached peak popularity (in the U.K., at least) since it was first created during the Great Depression.

[Photo: courtesy McDonald’s]
When McDonald’s introduced the One Million Dollar Diamond Hunt in 1979, it didn’t just offer big financial prizes in cash or gold. It also offered prizes in diamonds. Literal diamonds. The promise of gold and gems seems downright anachronistic just a few decades later. “I think they reflect the period of the time, or popular culture of the time, or what was the popular television or game program,” says Mike Bullington, McDonald’s internal archivist. “They really are a reflection of the current time when the game is being offered, for the most part.”

[Photo: courtesy McDonald’s]
Indeed, the One Million Dollar Diamond Hunt feels like it could have been straight out of a 1970s game shows, like The $10,000 Pyramid or Wheel of Fortune, both of which launched that decade. In these old sweepstakes, the art is hand-drawn, and the copywriting is downright cheesy. One ad features an old timey prospector holding a pan full of gold coins. Local “cash for gold” ads come to mind when scanning these strange artifacts.

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It wasn’t until 1987 that McDonald’s released what is by far its best recognized sweepstakes, Monopoly. The mechanics from earlier games were largely unchanged: Customers still collected game pieces by buying food, then filled a board over time to win prizes. But by teaming up with the family-friendly Hasbro game, McDonald’s ditched the get-rich-quick aesthetic for a wholesome board game–promising that “Monopoly has come to life!” The prize pool diversified around this time, too. With Monopoly, you could still win $1 million, but you could win cars, houses, and trips, too.

[Photo: courtesy McDonald’s]
The impact of Monopoly on McDonald’s’s bottom line has been incredible. With over 14,000 restaurants across the U.S., just a 1% increase or decline in sales quarter to quarter is big news for the company. Monopoly has successfully boosted store sales numbers as much as 5% for McDonald’s in the past few years. In a world where you can get a burger anywhere, McDonald’s is the only place that might score you both Boardwalk and Park Place for the effort.

[Photo: courtesy McDonald’s]
As Mitchell explains, these sorts of sweepstakes have never run on a predictable cadence. They might be yearly, or every two years, not necessarily coordinated to any season. The sweepstakes was the event. But through market research, McDonald’s continues to optimize its limited run events–and you can see that in Trick. Treat. Win! It’s the first time McDonald’s has used a holiday to launch a sweepstakes, rather than a menu item like the Shamrock Shake.

“Candidly, because of the success and power of some of the programs we’ve done in the past . . . they were less connected to tentpole,” says Mitchell. “As we were doing research to continue to evolve our promotions, we learned connecting to a tentpole would give us a tailwind.” In other words, running an exciting sweepstakes during an exciting holiday could make it more exciting. Don’t be surprised to see McDonald’s launch more holiday-themed sweepstakes in the future.

The company also found that the more people win, the more engaged they become in these promotions. With Trick. Treat. Win!, customers had a 1 in 4 chance of walking away with a prize–a high probability that virtually guarantees an eventual win. “These are often the things that almost build upon themselves. You play a program, win something, you get excited. It’s not just, I played. I won! It’s a bit of a self fulfilling cycle,” says Mitchell. “That part is really important. We’ve learned with this consumer research, if it feels like the chance to win something feels too distant, it really takes away from the motivation to participate and engage. We want it to be accessible.”

It’s a game where you can’t lose–and in an era when luxuries are scarce for most of America, these sweepstakes continue to be successful because they’re designed to fulfill the promise of a better life . . . even if that promise only ends up being free french fries.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day

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