What's bigger: 1/3 pound burgers or 1/4 pound burgers?

Do Americans really think 1/4 pound hamburgers are larger than 1/3 pound burgers? Apparently they did in the early 1980s. At least according to the New York Times — and the guy who bought the A&W restaurant chain back in 1982.

You may have seen this bizarre example of American mathematical ignorance getting passed around lately as a fun fact from "Why Do Americans Stink at Math?" by Elizabeth Green:

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 "¼," larger than the "3" in "⅓," led them astray.

But is this depressing tale true? I couldn't find it in any marketing textbooks or journals — at least none indexed by Google. But it does appear as an anecdote in the 2007 memoir of real estate tycoon A. Alfred Taubman, who purchased the A&W chain back in the early 1980s.

The author of the New York Times piece — which is adapted from her new book, Building a Better Teacher cited it as her source yesterday on Twitter.

From Threshold Resistance: The Extraordinary Career of a Luxury Retailing Pioneer:

Of course, not all my creative efforts to redefine and reenergize A&W were successful. In fact, one experience in particular still leaves a very bad taste in my mouth. We were aggressively marketing a one-third-pound hamburger for the same price as a McDonald's Quarter Pounder. But despite our best efforts, including first-rate TV and radio promotional spots, they just weren't selling. Perplexed, we called in the renowned market research firm Yankelovich, Skelly, and White to conduct focus groups and competitive taste tests.

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!

Image: McDonald's cheeseburger via Getty


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