Under the Influence

How failing at fractions saved the Quarter Pounder

A&W tried to give McDonald's famous Quarter Pounder hamburger a run for its money. What happened next may surprise you.
The Quarter Pounder was created by a franchisee named Al Bernadin in 1971. (The Associated Press)

McDonald's is celebrating a 50-year milestone this year. The creation of the Quarter Pounder.

You might assume the Quarter Pounder has been around much longer than just 50 years, but not so. The Quarter Pounder was created by a franchisee named Al Bernadin in 1971. He owned two McDonald's locations in Fremont, California.

Bernadin felt there was something missing in the McDonald's menu. Specifically, they needed something to offer people who wanted a "higher ratio of meat to bun." So he created a burger with a pre-cooked weight of just over four ounces. He called it the Quarter Pounder. Which was much better than his other option - the big Four Ouncer.

Bernadin introduced the burger at his locations with a sign that said, "Today Fremont, tomorrow the world." Big Al wasn't wrong about that. The Quarter Pounder was an instant success. The name was trademarked. And it became a McDonald's menu item worldwide.

Interestingly, A&W decided give the Quarter Pounder some competition in the 1980s. So it introduced the "Third-of-a-Pound Burger." It was priced the same as the Quarter Pounder but with a third of a pound of beef, instead of just a quarter pound. It even outperformed the Quarter Pounder in taste tests.

But nobody bought it.

When A&W did focus groups to try and figure out why, the reason was simple. And hilarious. It turns out, people aren't so savvy with fractions.

More than half the people in the focus groups questioned the price of the third-pounder. They wanted to know why they should have to pay the same price for a third of a pound as they did for a quarter pound at McDonald's. They said A&W was overcharging them. You're ripping them off.

People genuinely thought a third of a pound was less than a quarter pound. Because 3 was less than 4.

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The Terstream Mobile Recording Studio. (Image Credit: Sidney O'Reilly)