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  • McDonald's

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It’s a ritual that’s pretty much engrained into the American experience by this point: We walk into a fast food joint or pull up to the drive-through, peruse the menu for a couple minutes, place our order, receive it, and dig in. 

But lurking just below the surface is a clandestine operation that’s hell-bent on making you spend a little more money, order a little more food and drink, and think that the food and drink you get is a little tastier than it actually is.

Yes, fast food restaurants are very, very good at playing mind games with their  customers. Just look at the “Supersize” campaign that McDonald’s foisted upon the American people until Morgan Spurlock took it down in 2004: For just a little bit more money you could boost the size of your drink and fries, and for many people it sounded like a good deal. In reality, it was just a way to get customers to pay more money for something they didn’t really need; it’s called the upsell, and it’s one of the oldest restaurant tricks in the book.

Unfortunately, the upsell is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to fast food mind games. Every single element of the fast food experience, from the moment you walk through the door, from raising expectations about your meal to hurrying you out the door once you’ve gotten it (yes, there’s a reason why McDonald’s seats are uncomfortable and the music is loud and lousy), has been planned by a team of very smart and cunning individuals.

So read on to learn a few ways in which fast food restaurants are trying really hard to bend you to their whims. And the next time you walk into your favorite fast food joint and aren’t sure what to order, pay attention to the subtle ways that they influence your decision without you even realizing it.  

  • 1. That Smell


    When you walk into a McDonald’s or approach a Cinnabon at the mall, very distinct sense memories overtake you; namely, past experiences of walking into a McDonald’s or approaching a Cinnabon at the mall.  Just setting foot inside a McDonald’s makes you want some of those wonderful-smelling fries, and the alluring smell of Cinnabon has ruined many a diet.

  • 2. Inflated Drink Sizes


    If you walked into a fast food restaurant 25 years ago and asked for a large soda, it would be a lot smaller than a large soda served at today’s fast food establishments. The reason behind this is simple: customers don’t mind spending a few extra dimes for a gigantic soda, and it costs the restaurants next to nothing.

  • 3. Giant Billboards

    AP Photo

    We already know that the way fast food looks in advertisements looks almost nothing like how it looks in real life; there’s no way that every Big Mac coming out of a McDonald’s kitchen is the platonic ideal. But when you’re driving down the interstate and you see 30 feet of a delicious-looking burger, your brain processes it as if it’s much closer to you than it actually is. Before you know it you’re taking that exit without even thinking about it.

  • 4. “Healthy” Salads


    Planning on “just having a salad”? Some salads are definitely unhealthier than others; especially the ones that contain full-fat dressing, cheese, and/or fried chicken. While salads contain more vegetables than burgers, you’d be surprised by how high in calories and fat some of them are.

  • 5. Marketing to Kids


    The tastes you develop as children are the ones that stay with you your entire life, and chains know that if they can get kids hooked on their food they’ll be customers for years. Hence Happy Meals and on-site playgrounds and all the subtle (and not-so-subtle) other ways that fast food chains appeal to children.

    See more tricks fast companies employ.

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