Let's Remember McDonald's Marketing Disaster In The 1984 Olympics

L.A. is now one step closer to securing the 2024 Olympic Games, as Rome has formally dropped out of its bid for the event, reports the L.A. Times. This leaves L.A., Paris, and Budapest in the running, and organizers for LA 2024 have been going full-steam with their efforts to secure the Games; just last week the organization submitted its "Stage 2" application to the International Olympic Committee, and they're currently drafting a sustainability report.

As we close in on securing the Games, some might be wondering if L.A. would actually want it. Isn't it prohibitively expensive? Didn't it, you know, send Greece into a debilitating recession? While these things may be true, it's also a fact that L.A. had hosted one of the only profitable Olympic Games back in 1984—it ended up earning over $200 million in operating profits. The city pulled it off by bringing in a corporate element: television rights were sold, and sponsors like McDonald's, M&M/Mars, and Coke (the "official" drink of the event) were brought in to pump out some added cash. The result was an efficient and bankable Olympic Games, and, if history is any indication, L.A. should be able to pull it off again.

With that said, there was one ploy that probably won't be repeated again (to the chagrin of fast-food lovers).

Before the start of the 1984 Olympics, McDonald's struck up the idea of giving away free items for every medal that the U.S. won. How it worked was that a patron, upon purchasing an item at Mickey D's, would get a scratch-off card with an Olympic event on it. If the U.S. team won gold in that event, the patron would get a Big Mac. If the team won silver, the patron got french fries. Bronze meant a free soft drink. In certain respects, this was a genius idea because it gave us a tangible investment in the Games; Carl Lewis' success would be our success. We were participating from the seats of our own couch. The motto was "U.S. Wins, You Win."

Here are a couple commercials from that marketing ploy:

There was one factor that marketers didn't fully appreciate: the Soviet Union wasn't joining the Games. The U.S. had boycotted the 1980 Olympics, held in Moscow, because of Soviet warfare in Afghanistan. In turn, the Soviets (as well as East Germany and several other communist nations) turned down the invitation to come to L.A.

This was major, because the Soviets were a sports powerhouse. And, as noted at SB Nation, the absence of the communists also meant the absence of the Soviet's gymnasts, East Germany's swimmers, and North Korea's table tennis phenoms. This meant that the U.S. would go on to drag the opposition through the mud. While the Americans had secured 94 medals at the 1976 Summer Olympics (34 of them being gold), they'd end up scoring a whopping 174 medals in 1984, with 83 of them being first-place finishes.

All this meant that a lot of people were treated to free grub. A 1984 New York Times article noted that "some of McDonald's 6,600 domestic outlets have reportedly run short of Big Macs." Reps for McDonald's refused to give an estimate on how much they'd shell out for the promotion (likely to avoid the embarrassing press), but the Times had assumed the sum to be "mindboggling."

A user named "KC-97HORN" on a Texas Longhorns fan forum claimed that the promotion had actually helped sustain his family for a stretch of time when they were nearly penniless. He said that the promotion was a endless feedback of disaster for McDonald's:

What exacerbated the problem for McDonald's was, once the Olympics started (and people started redeeming their prizes), each order got you ANOTHER gamepiece, so you could literally walk up with a free coke coupon, cash it in, get a new gamecard of an event that just finished yesterday where the US won a gold and silver, and you could turn that new card in for new food immediately, plus you got 2 new cards to play with. If you got a US Mens Track and Field or Swimming card you were almost guaranteed a Free Big Mac and French Fry. You could actually use 3 coupons, get 3 items, and walk out with an entire meal for free (if you got the mens 200M gamepiece)...

He said that he'd end up collecting "a ton of winning tickets." And, when his family was re-located for his dad's new position with the Army, and when the Army had ran into some logistics issues and left the family stranded (and out of cash) for weeks, the users' family relied on the tickets for food:

So we ended up staying in the Hawaii Hilton (yay US Army rate), for almost 3 weeks, watching the Olympics, swimming in the Hilton lagoon and literally eating McDonalds every single day usually twice a day. Now that was heaven to a 10 year old (7, 4 as well), but even we ended up getting sick of McDonalds after 1 month solid of 90% of the food we ate being McDonalds.

Financially, McDonald's had certainly taken a hit. But there was also a matter of reputation. Their marketing gambit would be derided for years to come. Perhaps most famously, it was mocked on an episode of the Simpsons ("Lisa's First Word"), when Krusty's burger chain (the eponymous Krusty Burger) offered a similar promotion. In the swimming events, the Americans had little competition because, as noted by the sports announcer, some of the swimmers came from "countries that don't have swimming pools." Krusty was so beleaguered that he took to TV to call his patrons "pigs" and vowed to "spit in every 50th burger." To this Homer replied, "I like those odds."

Will we see a similar promotion for the 2024 Summer Olympics? If the results of 1984's ploy was any indication, Ronald McDonald won't be going to down the same marketing route. Though, on the other hand, the Cold War has been over for some time, the wall was torn down to unite Germany, and our relationship with Russia has improved (by a few centimeters or so). And, barring any major catastrophic geo-political disasters, we're not expecting a mass boycott of the 2024 Olympics.

It should also be noted that chain restaurants have some weird obsession with sports-related promotions. McDonald's in Australia had a similar promotion for the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney. And there's an endless array of stories about restaurants regretting their ventures into sports sponsorship. Just last week, a Ruth's Chris restaurant in Ann Arbor, Michigan held a promo in which customers would get a percentage off their bill equal to the point difference in a matchup between the University of Michigan and Rutgers' (granted that Michigan won). Michigan would go on to win in a 78-0 rout.

So hey, maybe we will get our fill of french fries and Big Macs in 2024. Though we'll have to land the Olympic Games first, of course. The IOC will decide on the host city in September of 2017.