Bringing a brand-new fast-food item into the world is anything but an exact science. You can do all the planning, field testing, and marketing in the world, but at the end of the day, there’s no way to know whether a new release will sell until it’s unleashed on the public. And few fast-food chains have rolled out as many failed menu items as McDonald’s.
McDonald’s spent more money on the advertising campaign for the Arch Deluxe in 1996 than it had on any other single item in its history. Costing the company more than $150 million to market, the Arch Deluxe — a quarter-pounder on a split-top potato bun — flopped, making the sandwich a very expensive mistake. The burger was geared toward adults, with add-ons like circular peppered bacon, leaf lettuce, Spanish onions, and a mustard-mayo sauce, and the unconventional ads included kids looking at the burger and saying things like, “I don’t understand what the big deal is.” When that approach didn’t work, new TV ads featured Ronald McDonald out partying and playing pool, a decided shift from the restaurant’s family-friendly image.
Back in the 1960s, a franchise owner was struggling with Friday sales due to being located in a predominantly Roman Catholic area during Lent. So he reached out to McDonald’s president Ray Kroc for ideas, and they each added a meat-free option to the menu to see which one sold better. Kroc’s idea was called the Hula Burger, an unappetizing-sounding burger with a grilled pineapple slice replacing the beef. The franchise owner’s idea? The Filet-O-Fish.
Over the years, McDonald’s has released international products in different locations across the world, some to great success. However, in 2002, it released one of the worst menu items and marketing flops in the company’s history. The McAfrika (consisting of beef, cheese, and vegetables in a pita), was released in Norway (one of the world’s richest countries) during some of the worst famines Southern Africa had ever seen. The campaign backfired so miserably that McDonald’s took the item off its menus and set up donation boxes for charities in support of famine relief in Africa. In an amazingly boneheaded move, the company re-launched the sandwich (complete with an “exotic African sauce”) in 2008 to promote the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and – surprise! – it also received an extremely negative response.
The McCrab was created for the Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia markets. The item was meant to resemble a classic Chesapeake crab cake but was lacking in the fresh ingredient department, and quickly went the way of the Dodo.
On the surface, it was a good idea: Serve a burger in a Styrofoam container with two separate compartments, one containing the hot beef patty and bottom bun and the other with the cool lettuce and tomato and the top bun. Put them together and you’ve got the perfect burger! The McDLT stuck around for six years between 1984 and 1990, but was discontinued due to complaints that the large amount of Styrofoam in the packaging was environmentally unfriendly.
While the U.S. market never had the pleasure of experiencing a McGratin Croquette — a deep-fried patty made of macaroni, potato, and shrimp — customers in Japan certainly did. It didn’t last long on Japanese menus, and critics believed it was a combination of odd flavors and poor marketing that led to its ultimate demise.
The McHotDog never caught on in terms of branding with the loyal McDonald’s client base, although many agreed it was a tasty product. The real problem was that in the eyes of seasoned patrons, the pallid hot dog didn’t match up with the rest of the tried-and-true menu items. In the mid-1990s the dog made a reappearance on seasonal menus in the Midwest, and the McHotDog has appeared from time to time in Japan and other countries.
In 1991, McDonald’s tried to just on the low fat craze bandwagon, crafting a burger dubbed the McLean Deluxe, intended to show critics that the fast-food giant could offer low-fat options. The advertising campaign bragged about a new kind of burger that was 91 percent fat-free with 10 grams of fat, compared to the Big Mac's 26 grams of fat. The burger actually contained seaweed that was meant to bind the meat together as a way of lowering the fat content. Needless to say, the burger was not a hit with customers, and critics dubbed it the "McFlopper."
In the 1980s, McDonald’s felt the need to compete with other fast-food chains like Domino’s and Pizza Hut, and it decided to launch the McPizza as well as other items like lasagna and spaghetti. Although McDonald's executives believed this would make the menu more attractive to those looking for traditional dinner items, the McPizza was unpopular with patrons looking for fast in-and-out service, and it (and the other Italian dishes) quickly left the scene.
Introduced in 2013 as a potential “Subway buster” intended to attract a younger clientele, these potentially healthy-ish wraps came with your choice of fried or grilled chicken, cheese, bacon, a selection of sauces, and a couple ingredients that had never before been served at McDonald’s, like cucumbers. But they were incredibly labor-intensive to prepare (employees had to steam the tortilla, chop the ingredients, stuff and roll the wrap, and fit it inside a cardboard sleeve), and added to the stress already placed on employees caused by the addition of all-day breakfast. The underperforming menu item was scuttled this past April.
McDonald’s finally rolled out chicken wings nationally after years of trial and error in September 2013, at the price of about a dollar per wing. They were spicy, crunchy, and generally well-reviewed. The chain bought 50 million pounds of wings with plans to leave them on the menu until supplies ran out, and was hoping to make them a permanent addition after that, but things didn’t go exactly as planned. Sales quickly petered out, and McDonald’s was left with 10 million pounds of unsold wings. The failure was attributed to price, spiciness, unattractive appearance, and lack of interest from penny-pinching customers. Many franchises resorted to selling them off at clearance prices of 60 cents per wing.
McDonald’s spent years trying to figure out a way to compete with Arby’s, and in 1968 it released a roast beef sandwich on a roll with a packet of barbecue sauce on the side. Though it sold well, the menu item required equipping every location with a meat-slicer, an expense that would prevent the sandwich from ever turning a profit. Executives discontinued the sandwich as soon as they realized this, and roast beef has never returned to the menu.
Introduced in 2000 as a fun new way to eat salad (out of a plastic cup with a clear dome lid), Salad Shakers needed to be shaken up after adding in the dressing in order to distribute it. Though the concept worked (plenty of people do the same thing with plastic containers every day for lunch), they were replaced by Premium Salads (served in actual bowls) in 2003.
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In the mid-1990s, McDonald’s launched a campaign allowing customers to “Super-Size” their meal for an added fee. For a while, the idea sold, and customers around the world were bulking up their orders, as well as calorie counts. After the release of the documentary Super-Size Me, which exposed the dangers of McDonald’s and fast food in general, the concept of super-sizing a meal went rapidly downhill, resulting in the company pulling it from menus in 2004.