Innumeracy & Inevitable Effects

In the 1980s, A&W released a hamburger called the “Third Pounder” in direct competition with the highly successful Quarter Pounder at McDonald’s. A&W’s burger contained more meat, while the same price of the Quarter Pounder, offering customers more bang for their buck; beyond size, the Third Pounder outshined the Quarter Pounder in blind taste testing, with consumers preferring the flavor of the former. So why did the Third Pounder fail? Developers of the volume-oriented burger overlooked the faulty assumption that their potential customer understood fractions. In order to better grasp the burger’s lack of success, A&W decided to do more research. Alfred Taubman, who owned A&W at the time, wrote about the confusion in his book Threshold Resistance: “More than half of the participants in the Yankelovich focus groups questioned the price of our burger. ‘Why,’ they asked, ‘should we pay the same amount for a third of a pound of meat as we do for a quarter-pound of meat at McDonald’s? You’re overcharging us.’ Honestly. People thought a third of a pound was less than a quarter of a pound. After all, three is less than four!” To the fast food goer, 1/3 seemed smaller than 1/4 — our third grade teachers are shaking their heads right now.

In their process of product development, A&W seems to have heavily focused on the assumption that Americans desired a bigger hamburger, which may have indeed been true, but without deeper research/immersion amidst the typical A&W customer, the problem space and the solution space unfortunately did not coalesce. RIP Third Pounder.