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This Facebook post by 9gag.com makes the claim that customers of A&W thought that A&W's 1/3 pound burgers weighed less than McDonald's 1/4 pound burgers, and preferred to buy the McDonald's burgers due to them thinking that a 1/4 pound burger has more meat than a 1/3 pound burger.

One of the most vivid arithmetic failings displayed by Americans occurred in the early 1980s, when the A&W restaurant chain released a new hamburger to rival the McDonald's Quarter Pounder. With a third-pound of beef, the A&W burger had more meat than the Quarter Pounder; in taste tests, customers preferred A&W's burger. And it was less expensive. A lavish A&W television and radio marketing campaign cited these benefits. Yet instead of leaping at the great value, customers snubbed it.

Only when the company held customer focus groups did it become clear why. The Third Pounder presented the American public with a test in fractions. And we failed. Misunderstanding the value of one-third, customers believed they were being overcharged. Why, they asked the researchers, should they pay the same amount for a third of a pound of meat as they did for a quarter-pound of meat at McDonald's. The "4" in "1/4," larger than the "3" in "1/3," led them astray.

(full meme image)

Was there ever such a customer focus group held by A&W, and did it reach the result described in the image?

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3 Answers 3

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The source of this image is an article in NY Times Magazine, the text of which (about a quarter down the page) is quoted exactly.

Kevin Drum, a blogger for MotherJones, tried to track down the source of this anecdote. He found a tweet by the article's author, Elizabeth Green, saying that she got it from "Threshold Resistance", the memoirs of Alfred Taubman, then-owner of A&W.

Reproducing the quote from that book that's on the MJ site:

Well, it turned out that customers preferred the taste of our fresh beef over traditional fast-food hockey pucks. Hands down, we had a better product. But there was a serious problem. 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!

Since any actual data on the study performed is probably private data of A&W and the Yankelovich research group, the question comes down to "do you believe Taubman?"

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    This is as far as my research got too. I would take issue with Taubman's claim that "customers preferred the taste of our fresh beef over traditional fast-food hockey pucks." Most companies claim to have a superior product, and without reading his book, we can't know how this conclusion was reached. I imagine any "study" done by A&W is going to favor A&W.
    – Will
    Aug 13, 2015 at 18:11
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    You'd think they'd come out with a 1/5th burger. Aug 13, 2015 at 19:59
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    @BrianM.Hunt The McD's regular burger is a sixth pound patty. Obviously, they didn't have this problem when they dubbed their larger burger "the quarter pounder". I think Taubman is passing the buck. The product probably failed for legitimate business reasons. McD's is a tough competitor.
    – user11643
    Apr 2, 2020 at 20:13
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    "we'll probably have to take Taubman at his word here" -- I would be skeptical of his word here. He is hardly an unbiased observer. It was his company at the time. "The customers are too stupid to want our superior product" (paraphrased) is a bit too self-flattering. Apr 1, 2021 at 14:42
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    @fredsbend a regular McDonald's hamburger patty is 1.6 ounces, which is a tenth of a pound. (As with the 4-oz quarter pounder, this is the weight before cooking.) But, crucially, they never marketed it based on its fractional relationship to the pound. They never called it a tenth-pounder or a sixth-pounder or anything of the sort, so there was no reason for anyone to be confused.
    – phoog
    Apr 5, 2021 at 4:20
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A&W Confirms https://awrestaurants.com/blog/aw-third-pound-burger-fractions

(Unfortunately my browser is treating it like an image, so it’s hard to copy and paste)

And they source a book written by the then owner Alfred Taubman called “Threshold Resistance”

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  • I'm confused. Why the down-votes? The OP questions whether this happened, and this answer goes directly to a source that would be the MOST involved, which confirms the claim. Feb 9, 2023 at 17:02
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    The book used as the ultimate source here is already quoted in the answer from 2015. Other than confirming that the current marketing team stands by the story, this doesn't add much.
    – IMSoP
    Feb 11, 2023 at 11:35
  • I don't know that this is "SE Law" really, but I frequently find answers that are primarily link based to be invalid after a few years. The links don't work anymore, and the answer is useless without the link. Ideally, answers should use links as support, but still plainly state what the answer is (quoting the relevant text within the link as part of the answer, for example).
    – JamieB
    Feb 27, 2023 at 19:07
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From Mother Jones article:

UPDATE: Elizabeth Green tweets that her source for this anecdote is Threshold Resistance by Alfred Taubman, who owned A&W in the 80s. Here’s the relevant passage, after Taubman has called in Yankelovich, Skelly and White to figure out what was wrong with their burger:

"Well, it turned out that customers preferred the taste of our fresh beef over traditional fast-food hockey pucks. Hands down, we had a better product. But there was a serious problem. 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!"

Threshold Resistance: The Extraordinary Career of a Luxury Ret Oct 13, 2009 by A. Alfred Taubman ISBN-13 : 978-0061235375

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    This doesn't seem to add anything to the existing answer.
    – Joe W
    Apr 1, 2021 at 13:40

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