Our math skills are keeping us from bigger, juicier burgers

A&W is using a past marketing failure to promote a new burger. Will it be a success this time?

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A&W burger
Photo: Machado Noa/LightRocket (Getty Images)

What better way to start your week than by reminiscing about some good old-fashioned marketing fails? You know the type: a major brand comes up with a seemingly foolproof product or ad campaign that’s quickly scuttled after being subjected to the general public. You might recall, for example, the deafeningly loud SunChips bags that had to be discontinued, or the KFC slogan that didn’t play so well to its global audience in the midst of a pandemic. These are all fun glimpses at the psychology of the average consumer, and perhaps no flub illustrates that so well as the A&W burger snafu of the 1980s.

As QSR Magazine explains, back in the 1980s when the McDonald’s Quarter Pounder was the burger to beat, A&W had the great idea to debut a 1/3 Pound Burger at the same price as a Quarter Pounder. More meat for your dollar—what could go wrong? Unfortunately, the burger was a total flop, for reasons that A&W didn’t see coming. In focus groups following the disastrous launch of the 1/3 Pound Burger, customers indicated that they thought 1/3 pound of meat was smaller than 1/4 pound, because 4 is a bigger number than 3. So people considered the burger a rip-off, not a deal.

A&W, perhaps embittered by the hard-learned lessons of the past, is still stuck on winning Americans over with a big, juicy burger. So it has decided to rebrand the 1/3 Pound Burger in a way that Americans of all math skill levels will be drawn to: the 3/9 lb. Burger.

QSR reports that ad agency CORNETT was brought in to turn A&W’s most high-profile failure into a marketing angle for its new menu item. Liz Bazner, A&W’s director of marketing, explains the origin of the new campaign:

“This story has been circulating for years, and every few months it seems to gain momentum and reappear on social media. We’ve gotten tons of questions about it, but prior to now we haven’t been proactive about setting the record straight. We’re excited to have found a way to finally let America know that our burgers really are bigger and really are better.”

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The commercial for the 3/9 lb. Burger is pretty funny, and I love seeing Rooty the Great Root Bear, A&W’s perky mascot, restlessly tear around a room full of mathematical formulas, A Beautiful Mind–style.

“Turns out, Americans are just terrible at math,” says the voiceover as Rooty mashes an abacus and erases equations in frustration. ”Like, really bad.”

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While I definitely fall into the category of “Americans who are very bad at math,” I have at least some defense to offer A&W customers of the 1980s who might have been confused by the release of the 1/3 Pound Burger.

A few years ago, I went to an after-hours museum event where adults could stroll around with cocktails and tour the exhibits, and win scavenger hunts by solving some basic algebra equations posted around the museum. But the sixth-grade math class that taught me this stuff was two decades in the past, and with a cocktail in hand, I stood squinting at the paper. Do X and Y get placed on the same side of the equation, or is the goal to separate them on either side of the equation? I couldn’t quite remember the rules, especially when I was so far removed from the context of a math classroom.

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And you know what else is far removed from the context of a math classroom? A busy A&W ordering line, when your kids are tugging on your arm to make last-minute alterations to their orders and you haven’t even had a chance to glance at the menu yet to decide what you want. It seems to me like if A&W wanted to convey that 1/3 was bigger than 1/4, it should have specified “BIGGER THAN A QUARTER POUNDER, SAME PRICE” on all the posters. A bustling fast food joint isn’t the place for subtlety.

Fortunately, the tagline for the 3/9 Burger is “IT’S BIGGER.” So hopefully that clears things up. Would you order it?