When and Why did McDonald’s Start “Super Sizing” Meals? (Plus: The Myths of “Super Size Me”)

In March of 2004, fast-food giant McDonald’s announced the end of an era. By the end of the year, customers at the chain’s more than 13,000 U.S. restaurants would no longer be hearing those iconic words: “Would you like to super-size that?” Since its introduction in the summer of 1987, super-sizing has become an iconic part of the McDonald’s brand and, to critics, the perfect encapsulation of all that is excessive and wrong with the fast-food industry. But where exactly did the practice of super-sizing come from, and why, given its enormous impact on global pop-culture, did McDonald’s finally decide to abandon it?

The idea of super-sizing meals can be traced back to the 1960s and one David Wallerstein, the Chicago-born manager of the Balaban and Katz movie theatre chain. A prolific innovator in the field of theatre concessions, Wallerstein originated many now-ubiquitous practices like offering butter on popcorn and ice with fountain drinks. When, in the mid-1960s, Balaban and Katz theatres suffered a slump in concession sales, Wallerstein set out to discover why. He observed that while most moviegoers were willing to consume far more than the standard popcorn and drink sizes of the day allowed, few opted to buy more than one serving. After careful observation and talking to the customers, Wallerstein discovered why: buying more than one serving made customers feel greedy and gluttonous, while the extra cups and bags were heavy and awkward to carry back to their seats. In response, Wallerstein introduced yet another simple but brilliant innovation: larger two-quart popcorn buckets and 64-ounce drink cups. Concessions sales recovered almost overnight, and modern movie concessions were born.

A decade later, Wallerstein was serving on the board of directors of McDonald’s when the company faced a similar slump in sales. As a solution, Wallerstein suggested offering super-sized meals. However Ray Kroc, then-CEO of McDonald’s, was unconvinced; after all, he argued, if people wanted more food, they would just buy an extra burger or order of fries. But Wallerstein disagreed: based on his experience with theatre concessions, he knew that most people were reluctant to buy extra portions for fear of appearing gluttonous. If instead they could purchase a larger single burger or basket of fries, he argued, then they would be more willing to increase their portion size and pay more. When Kroc still refused to budge, Wallerstein set off in search of evidence to support his case. While carefully watching patrons eat at a Chicago McDonald’s, Wallerstein observed that many customers consumed their meals down to the last crumb, even going so far as to lick the last drops of ketchup and mustard off the burger wrappers in some cases. Clearly these patrons were unsatisfied with existing portion sizes, but too self-conscious to order seconds. When presented with this evidence, Kroc finally relented.

In more recent years, controlled scientific studies have confirmed what Wallerstein knew: that the human appetite is elastic, and that people will eat up to 30% more than they originally would have when presented with larger portion sizes. More insidiously, super-sizing also taps into our unconscious association between large portion sizes and social status. In a 2012 study conducted by researchers David Dubois, Derek Rucker, and Adam Galinsky at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, participants were made to read fake scientific articles stating either that 63% of the most influential Americans are fit, or that 63% of the most influential Americans are overweight. They were then allowed to select one of five different sizes of chocolate bars. Of those primed to associate fitness with status, a significant majority chose a smaller chocolate bar, while those primed to associate weight with status overwhelmingly chose to supersize their snack. This effect was further amplified when participants were also primed to think of themselves as more or less powerful, with those primed to think of themselves as less powerful being more likely to choose the supersized option. Further experiments revealed that this effect remains constant regardless of price, and is further amplified when subjects are aware that other people are watching them consume.

Yet despite the powerful psychological effects of supersizing, it would not be until the summer of 1987 that McDonald’s finally introduced the now-iconic practice. However, this first round of supersizing was only intended as a one-time promotion, the ad copy reading:

When it’s summertime, it’s time for big fun. And big tastes. Like the taste of McDonald’s cool refreshing soft drinks. Or our World Famous Fries. Or a delicious thick and smooth shake. Just for summer, we’ve made them better by making them bigger. So the tasted you love will last even longer. So ride, roll, skate or stroll into McDonald’s for the big taste of our Super Summer Sizes. But hurry! Summer doesn’t last forever, and neither does this offer. It’s available for a limited time only at participating McDonald’s.”

Over the following years, however, McDonald’s would change its mind thanks to a pair of groundbreaking movies. In 1988, McDonald’s partnered with Disney to promote the live-action/animation hybrid Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Given the more mature tone of the film compared to previous Disney animated features, McDonald’s decided to forego the typical Happy Meal promotion aimed at children and instead decided to bring back super-sized meals in order to appeal to the teenagers and adults who were the film’s main audience. Five years later, McDonald’s used the same strategy to promote Universal’s 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park, offering “dino-sized” fries and drinks and special collectible drink cups featuring dinosaurs from the film. Both promotions proved so successful that McDonald’s decided to retain super-sized items as a permanent part of its menu. And the rest, as they say, is history.

But alas, it was not to last. Many factors played into McDonald’s decision to abandon super-sizing in 2004. According to McDonald’s spokesman Walt Riker, the main driving force behind abandoning the practice was menu simplification. In the 1990s, McDonald’s introduced a large number of new menu items in an attempt to correct flagging domestic sales, resulting in a menu many customers complained was too cluttered and complicated. When sales began to recover in the early 2000s, the company saw the opportunity for some long-overdue housekeeping, as former McDonald’s franchising executive Richard Adams explains:

Now that sales have improved, it’s easier to pull things off the menu. When sales are declining, the corporation and the franchisees are terrified at the prospect of selling a few less 42-ounce drinks. When sales are on the upswing, it’s easier to admit that you can’t be everything to everybody.”

At the time of McDonald’s announcement, Walt Riker also listed another, more surprising reason for abandoning supersizing: lack of sales. Strange as it might seem, according to the BBC by 2004 super-sized options only accounted for a 0.1% of McDonald’s total sales. The official reason given by McDonald’s for this decline is that the supersized options were simply too big, and many customers were unable to finish their meals before the fries grew cold and stale and the soda warm and flat. But the trend may in fact have more to do with the second major reason for abandoning super-sizing: growing concerns over the healthiness of McDonald’s food.

Despite being among the first modern fast-food chains, McDonald’s was one of the last to introduce healthier food options, only adding salads to its menu in 1986 long after most other chains had already done so. This reluctance to adapt to changing customer demands has turned McDonald’s into a lightning rod for public criticism against the fast-food industry – and a magnet for lawsuits. In 2002, a 56-year-old New York maintenance worker named Caesar Barber launched a class-action lawsuit against McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, and KFC, claiming that by failing to properly disclose the ingredients in their food, these company were responsible for his obesity, diabetes, and two recent heart attacks. The same year, a group of nine New York teenagers including 15-year-old Gregory Rhymes and 19-year-old Jazlyn Bradley filed a similar suit against both McDonald’s itself and their favourite Bruckner Boulevard franchise. The teenagers’ lawyer, Samuel Hirsch, argued that McDonald’s advertising was deceptive and encouraged children to eat unhealthily, stating in court:

McDonald’s has the information that a child consuming this food more than one time a week may result in a child developing juvenile diabetes. It’s become an insipid, toxic kind of thing. Nobody thinks that going to McDonald’s can be unhealthy because they promote their foods as healthy. Young people are not in a position to make a choice after the onslaught of advertising and promotions.”

John Doyle, co-founder of restaurant industry group Centre for Consumer Freedom, countered Hirsch by stating:

He must be aware that fully two-thirds of all foods consumed in America are consumed in people’s homes. Is he proposing that we sue America’s moms? To win his suit he has to convince a jury or a judge that people are too stupid to feed themselves or their children. If people are so stupid, should they be allowed to vote or go to work in the morning?”

Ultimately both cases were thrown out of court as frivolous, with 26 states even going so far as to ban obesity lawsuits outright. Nonetheless, the suits clearly had a profound effect on McDonald’s, for only two years later the company launched its massive “Eat Smart, Be Active” initiative. The brainchild of CER Jim Catalupo and U.S. operations chief Mike Roberts, the campaign saw the implementation of dozens of changes besides the elimination of supersizing, such as the tweaking of product portions, the introduction of entree salads, and dropping 2% milk in favour of 1%.

But while McDonald’s freely admits that the initiative was inspired by customer demand for healthier options, one factor it vehemently denies played into its decision to drop super-sizing is the appropriately-titled 2004 documentary Super-Size Me. In the film, writer-director Morgan Spurlock eats nothing but McDonald’s food for a month, documenting the effects of such a diet on his physical and mental health. According to Spurlock, the effects in question included gaining 11 kilograms of body mass, soaring cholesterol, mood swings, depression, and sexual dysfunction. The documentary was a hit, winning the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, grossing over $11.5 million at the box office, and igniting a global debate about the potential health effects of fast food.

Unsurprisingly, McDonald’s denounced the film, with spokesman Walt Riker calling it:

“…a super-sized distortion of the quality, choice, and variety available at McDonald’s.”

According to Riker, the film is less an indictment of McDonald’s food and more of Spurlock’s decision to consume over 5,000 calories per day – an irresponsible act, he argues, no matter what kind of food is being eaten. And indeed, in the years since the documentary’s release other researchers such as Tom Naughton, Soso Whaley, and John Cisna have been unable to replicate Spurlock’s results, with Whaley and Cisna actually losing in the latter’s case 27 kilos in mass despite eating exclusively at McDonald’s for up to 180 days.

As Cisna later stated, “I’m not pushing McDonald’s. I’m not pushing fast food. I’m pushing taking accountability and making the right choice for you individually… I mean, a guy eats uncontrollable amounts of food, stops exercising, and the whole world is surprised he puts on weight?”

Whaley, who simply kept her McDonald’s intake around 2000 calories per day and otherwise kept up an exercise regiment chimed in, “The first time I did the diet in April 2004, I lost 10 pounds and lowered my cholesterol 40 points.

This, along with Spurlock’s refusal to release his food logs, has lead to widespread accusations that his results were fabricated or heavily distorted. Nonetheless, the documentary had a – pardon the pun – super-sized impact on the public’s perception of McDonald’s and other fast food chains and forced these companies to come to terms with rapidly-changing consumer demands.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same, for despite the gargantuan portions evoked by the words “super-sized,” the difference between the current largest portion sizes and their original supersized equivalents is surprisingly small. For example, the current 6-ounce “large” fries have only 74 fewer calories and 3 fewer grams of fat than the old 7-ounce “super-sized” fries, while the difference between a large and super-sized coke is only 97 calories. And despite McDonald’s claims that the elimination of supersizing was part of a larger initiative to streamline and simplify their menu, since 2004 the menu has actually ballooned from 60 to 145 items – including a “Grand Mac” burger larger than anything the chain has previously offered. But at least when McDonald’s launched its “Eat Smart, Be Active” campaign, it actually did reduce the size of its portions. When in 2006 rival chain Wendy’s eliminated its “Biggie Size” option, it did so in name only; the size is still available, only now it’s known as a “medium.” Similarly, Burger King’s “King Sized” now goes by the more modest name of “large.” So while the words “would you like to super-size that?” have disappeared from American fast-food restaurants, the spirit of those words is still alive and well.

Expand for References

McDonald’s Phasing Out Supersized Fries, Drinks, NBC News, March 2, 2004, https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna4433307

Roger Rabbit and McDonald’s, Austin American-Statesman, July 3, 1988, https://www.newspapers.com/clip/82011022/roger-rabbit-and-mcdonalds/

Kelly, Debra, The Real Reason Why McDonald’s Supersized Menu Disappeared, Mashed, January 2, 2019, https://www.mashed.com/100812/gross-things-know-mcdonalds/

Chandler, Adam, How McDonald’s Became a Target for Protest, The Atlantic, April 16, 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/04/setting-the-symbolic-golden-arches-aflame/390708/

McDonalds Lawsuit – What’s the Story? Compassionate Spirit, https://compassionatespirit.com/wpblog/2005/11/16/mcdonalds-lawsuit-whats-the-story/

Sealey, Geraldine, Obese man Sues fast-Food Chains, ABC News, January 7, 2006, https://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=91427&page=1

Erica N, The Science of “Supersizing It”, Medium, March 31, 2020, https://endubueze00.medium.com/the-science-of-supersizing-it-2721e76367f6

Belsky, Gary, Study:How Supersizing Makes Us Feel More Important, TIME, April 16, 2012, https://business.time.com/2012/04/16/study-how-supersizing-makes-us-feel-more-important/

Vulliamy, Ed, ‘Super-Sized’ Teenagers Sue McDonald’s, The Guardian, November 24, 2002, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2002/nov/24/health.healthandwellbeing

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