McDonald's 1984 Olympics Marketing Failure
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, McDonalds 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.
McDonald's looked at the U.S. medal count from the last games they had participated in 1976 and saw 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).
The Soviet Union dominated the 1980 Olympics but boycotted the 1984 games. This certainly did not help the McDonalds marketing team as it opened the way for the US to dominate the games.
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.
The boycott and the US team’s success was a huge problem for McDonald’s. Some branches reported running out of Big Macs because of the many hundreds they’d had to give away to scratch card holders for free. McDonald’s have never admitted how much money they lost on this disastrous promotion, but it's not hard to imagine this cost them millions of dollars.
Takeaway: This marketing plan could and should have been shelved or at least heavily modified long before the scratch cards started being printed. Even though the Soviet Union didn’t announce the boycott until three months before the event, you would have expected someone in the marketing department at McDonald’s to realize that a Soviet boycott was a very real prospect. McDonald’s might have removed some of the more ambitious elements from the campaign, perhaps only offering free food for gold medals, or only handing out one scratch card per customer rather than for each item.