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 is the largest burger chain in America, and also the one under the most scrutiny. When it rolls out a new menu item, it’s usually met with a huge amount of fanfare as well as a major push to make sure that as many folks as possible are aware of it. So when an item fails, it fails spectacularly and embarrassingly.
Though McDonald’s has a set menu at most of its locations, the chain is continuously testing out new items, usually in a handful of local markets, in order to try to get an idea of how they’d fare nationally. Many items, like the BBQ Chicken, Corn Dog McNuggets, and Catfish Sandwich, never made it past the local testing phase, and some items, like the infamous McLobster roll, are still available regionally.
Some items were tested out seasonally to see how they fared as well, never to return once the season ended. International McDonald’s are even more adventurous, with some truly outrageous creations making it to menus, also meeting with various levels of success.
1. Arch Deluxe
McDonald’s spent more money on the advertising campaign for the Arch Deluxe in 1996 than it had on any one 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.
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2. Hula Burger
Back in the 1960s, a franchise owner was struggling with Friday sales due to its location 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.