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CollectingCandy // Chloe Effron

The Short, Strange Life of McDonald's Pizza

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CollectingCandy // Chloe Effron

In the 1980s, McDonald’s was as dominant as any fast food chain could hope to be. Possibly the world’s most-recognized brand, McDonald's was double the size of its closest competitor, owning nearly 40% of the $48 billion burger market. It had successfully branched out from cow-and-potato menu standards with the introduction of the Chicken McNugget. Before long, Happy Meals were being used everywhere to soothe the siren wails of hungry, manipulative children.

There was just one asterisk. McDonald's didn’t do dinner.

Specifically, its customers didn’t do dinner. Not there. Sacks of burgers were perceived as a lunchtime treat, something to be grabbed while speeding to or from the responsibilities of the day. When families got together in the evenings, they preferred to sit down, relax, and eat at a table rather than slumped over a steering wheel.

McDonald’s had been forced to break the mold before: In 1973, they attracted early-morning traffic by introducing the Egg McMuffin. Critics scoffed, but the sandwich was a breakfast phenomenon that led to an entire menu of a.m. options. There were millions—billions, even—to be earned in duplicating that success after 4 p.m.

It did not go unnoticed that the most sensational restaurant category in recent memory was pizza. Big chains like Pizza Hut and independent parlors were growing by 10 percent each year. Americans loved their pies. They also loved McDonald’s.

In 1986, word began to spread: McDonald's had secret plans to take a bite out of the ever-growing pizza industry.

It was not, for any real length of time, actually called "McPizza." That name was used for a calzone-style product that was tested briefly in the 1980s, presumably so drivers would be able to eat without being distracted by molten cheese in their lap. It was also not the only prototype: In Utah, one consumer, Jeff Terry, recalls picking up a cardboard pouch stuffed with a mini pie that had an expiration date embossed on the dough. Local parlors, he says, advertised that their pizza didn’t need to be dated for freshness.

None of these McPizzas evolved beyond regional testing, making it clear that the pizza itself could not be easily re-imagined to conform to the McDonald’s template. Instead, McDonald’s would have to conform to the pizza, upending their preparation model to accommodate the saucer-shaped dinner.

The company spent years developing a quick-cook oven (which was later patented) that used superheated air to take dough from frozen to crispy in under six minutes. Speed was a crucial component of the rollout—early commercials promised consumers had never had pizza "so good, so fast"—so diners wouldn't be tempted to stick with established chains or local pizzerias.

The oven made a solid pie, but it came at the expense of kitchen real estate: franchisees were going to have to remodel their restaurants to make room for the new equipment, including a warming bin.

Next came the problem of drive-thru orders. While McDonald’s planned to offer table service for family-sized pizzas indoors, a large box could not fit through many older drive-thru windows, which had to be expanded in order to accommodate the new menu selection. Executives also wanted a window that could show people near the cashier how their pies were being prepared. This, too, required more renovation, with stores stretching and contorting to handle the corporate strategy.

Expanded testing of the pizza began in 1989. Roughly 24 restaurants in or near Evansville, Indiana and Owensboro, Kentucky were selected to participate. After spending much of the decade tinkering, McDonald’s was ready to see if they could become the country’s biggest supplier of pizza. Unfortunately, not everyone shared that ambition.

"Don’t make a McStake," urged an advertisement for an Illinois-area Pizza Hut. As the world’s largest pizza chain, the idea that McDonald’s could use their sizeable footprint to muscle in on their business was unthinkable.

''Every place you see a McDonald's pizza, you're going to see a war,'' ad man Jack Levy told the New York Times in 1989.

Pizza Hut lobbed grenades, referring to the competition’s "McFrozen" dough and offering two-for-one pie deals. Even without their pressure, McDonald’s was having problems. Fast food was virtually their reason for existing, but the pizza service was glacial. Pizza insiders speculated their vaunted 5-minute prep time could wind up being 10 minutes or more once restaurants got busy. Sure enough, employees had to tell customers to park their car and wait for pizzas; patrons inside watched their hamburgers grow cold while politely waiting for a friend’s pie to finish baking. (It didn’t help that the company's own advertising featured a man reading a newspaper while waiting for his order.) McDonald’s sole advantage over the competition—expedited food—wasn’t happening.

There was also the matter of cost: at $5.99 to $8.99 a pie, consumers were being asked to spend far more than they had come to expect. Two pies for a family, plus drinks, could easily top $15.  

Still, the company refused to believe McDonald's-endorsed pizza could miss. By some estimates, pies expanded to nearly 40 percent of their restaurants in the early 1990s but disappeared just as quickly. They survived a little longer in Canada, with Howie Mandel hustling for the company in ads. In 2012, McDonald’s Canada came as close as the corporation ever has to publicly offering a reason for their pizza’s demise. In a response to a question posted on their web site:

“Although it was a popular menu item in Canada, the preparation time was about 11 minutes—which was way too long for us. Every McDonald's has a busy kitchen and the pizza slowed down our game. And since speed of service is a top priority and expected by our customers, we thought it best to remove this menu item. For now, our pizzas will have to remain a tasty bit of history.”

Jason Meredith, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Junk food nostalgia works in mysterious ways. Although McDonald’s pizza failed to meet the company’s expectations, its brief life made for some happy memories. In early 2015, a story on Canada.com went viral when it reported that two restaurants—one in Pomeroy, Ohio and one in Spencer, West Virginia—were still offering pizza to customers.  

Both locations are owned by the same franchisee, Greg Mills, who has ignored repeated requests by media for comment. But he’s likely not acting autonomously: menu items are screened by corporate headquarters. In order for McDonald’s pizza to still be served (even if it's not exactly the same recipe as before), the company must be offering approval on some level, possibly with an eye on revitalizing pizza. (In 2000, the company flirted with the idea of putting personal-sized pies into Happy Meals.)

If they do ever bring back the dish, it will still require some patience. Billy Wolfe, a reporter from the Charleston Daily Mail, wanted to try the now-mythological food and waited 10 minutes at the West Virginia location for his order to arrive. He brought the pies back to his office for a consensus, and while everyone fancied themselves a food critic (some said it was "bland" and the sauce was "a little too sweet," while Wolfe's take was that it "wasn’t offensive, but it wasn’t great"), all of the pieces were devoured, and one co-worker offered some apt perspective: "It's as good as McDonald's pizza could be."

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Jug Life: A History of the Kool-Aid Man
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Kraft

When Robert Skollar joined the General Foods marketing team at Grey Advertising in 1988, it didn’t take him long to realize that there were certain perks that came with the job. As the executive behind the Kool-Aid ad campaign, Skollar inherited the Kool-Aid Man, the anthropomorphic pitcher of sugar water that had been a staple of the brand for more than a decade.

Two stories stand out: The first, Skollar says, is when he was working late one night and decided to try on the Kool-Aid Man’s fiberglass costume for himself. It was like being inside a Christmas ornament. “It’s hard to hear anything in there,” Skollar tells Mental Floss. “You just hope you don’t fall down.”

The second was when Skollar got caught up in the trend of New York professionals putting on elaborate birthday parties for their kids. Skollar asked Richard Berg, the voice of Kool-Aid Man’s “Oh, Yeah!” catchphrase, to actually wear the costume for a personal appearance at his son’s sixth birthday party. (Normally, Berg just recorded the line.) “It was the voice in the costume, which was a first,” Skollar says. “And half the kids were frightened to death.”

Fortunately, that was hardly the typical reaction. Introduced in 1975, Kool-Aid Man became one of the most beloved characters in advertising history, with a recognition factor that sometimes outpaced that of Ronald McDonald. He got his own video game, his own comic book, and his own museum display in Hastings, Nebraska.

Not bad for someone who started out as a disembodied head.

By the time advertising executive Marvin Potts created a sentient pitcher of Kool-Aid in 1954, the powdered soft drink mix had been on shelves for 27 years. Conceived by Edwin Perkins in Hastings, Nebraska, as an alternative to glass bottle drinks—which were expensive to ship—what was then known as “Kool-Ade” became a cheap, popular way to flavor water.

When Perkins sold the brand to General Foods in 1953, their contracted advertising firm of Foote, Cone & Belding trialed a few different television spots. Potts’s idea—a large, bulbous container of Kool-Aid with an animated mouth and eyes named Pitcher Man—was the most popular. (Company lore says Perkins came up with the idea after watching his kid draw a smiley face on the condensation of a window.)

In the 1960s, Kool-Aid opted for celebrity spokespeople like The Monkees and Bugs Bunny, relegating Pitcher Man to the sidelines. “I think they found out Bugs was overwhelming the whole campaign,” Skollar says. “Kids would remember him but forget the ad was for Kool-Aid.”

That ceased to be a problem in 1975, when Alan Kupchick and Harold Karp at Grey Advertising developed the idea for Kool-Aid Man, an evolution of Pitcher Man. His face stopped moving, but the addition of arms and legs gave the character a more bombastic personality. It also allowed him to commit sensational acts of property destruction.

Skollar recalls that the iconic breaking-through-the-wall sequence wasn’t necessarily planned. “From what I’ve heard, someone on set said that Kool-Aid Man really had to make an entrance, and someone else, maybe a producer, suggested he come through the wall.” Breakaway bricks were set up, and the character's fiberglass shell—“the same material used for a Corvette Stingray,” Skollar says—effectively became a wrecking ball.

Although he was never officially named Kool-Aid Man at the time, the mascot helped propel sales of the drink mix. “It was a phenomenon,” Skollar says. “Here you had this 50-year-old product that’s not really convenient and not particularly healthy, and it’s huge.”

As Kool-Aid Man’s star grew, so did his opportunities to branch out. The property got its own Marvel comic—The Adventures of Kool-Aid Man—as well as an Atari 2600 video game. The latter could be redeemed with 125 points earned from purchasing Kool-Aid, which amounts to about 62.5 gallons of sugar water. (You could also send $10 with 30 points.)

When Skollar was handed control of the campaign in 1988, the advice was pretty clear. “It was basically: Don’t screw it up,” he says, “and make it more contemporary.”

Skollar says he took inspiration from Pee-wee’s Playhouse and the Peter Gabriel music video for "Sledgehammer" to conceive of an entire Kool-Aid Man universe—one bursting with frenetic activity that kids would find exciting and adults would find impenetrable.

“Most kid ads had a storyline at the time,” he says. “This didn’t. It was just surreal.”

This Lynchian Kool-Aid Man was no longer 7 years old, as previous marketing campaigns had implied, but 14 years old—old enough to play guitar and surf. Once naked, he now sported jeans and cool shirts. Skollar believes that the kinetic spots helped usher in a new wave of kid advertising that relied more on visceral, MTV-style cuts.

Not all of Kool-Aid’s efforts were focused on hyperactive kids, however. The drink mix was not without its controversies, having once been associated with the Jonestown massacre in 1978, where cult leader Jim Jones coerced his followers into drinking Kool-Aid and Flavor Ade laced with cyanide. There was also the matter of Kool-Aid suggesting gobs of sugar be added to the drink for flavor.

“We did a campaign targeted to moms, ‘Having Kids Means Having Kool-Aid,’” Skollar says. “And we told them they could control the amount of sugar they used. We also pushed that Kool-Aid had Vitamin C.”

Under Skollar, Kool-Aid sales shot to third place in the soft drink category—behind only Coke and Pepsi.

Kool-Aid Man makes an appearance at the NASDAQ
Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

Skollar stayed on the Kool-Aid campaign through 1994, at which point the account was passed to Ogilvy & Mather. Eventually, the fiberglass costume became nylon and computer effects began to enhance his features.

CG was something Skollar had already started to experiment with, but eventually discarded it for the analog outfit. “There was something about that rawness, that awkward-looking pitcher breaking through walls,” he says.

One of the original costumes from 1975 sits in the Hastings Museum of Natural and Cultural History in Hastings, Nebraska, a testament to the character’s enduring appeal. Skollar says he once had research data supporting the fact that over 90 percent of kids could recognize Kool-Aid Man on sight.

The same wasn’t necessarily true of adults. “I remember one time we were shooting an ad where Kool-Aid Man was walking over a hill at sunset, holding hands with a little girl,” he says. “And a junior brand executive taps me on the shoulder and says, ‘We can’t see his face. How will we know who he is?’”

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Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, YouTube
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The Most Famous Anti-Drug Ad Turns 30. Any Questions?
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Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, YouTube

Without realizing it, Paul Keye had made the American Egg Board very unhappy. A creative director at the ad agency Keye/Donna/Pearlstein, Keye (it rhymes with “high”) had been partly responsible for a public service announcement in tandem with the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. In it, actor John Roselius expertly cracked an egg into a searing hot frying pan, watched it sizzle, and proclaimed the scene a metaphor for what happens to your neurons when you use illegal narcotics.

“This is your brain,” Roselius intoned. “This is drugs. This is your brain on drugs.” Then, rhetorically: “Any questions?”

The spot premiered in 1987 and was lauded for its simple, direct, and effective approach to communicating the dangers of street drugs to teenagers. It’s been parodied, revisited, and credited with an actual decline in drug use. But spokespeople for the Egg Board complained that their protein-filled product was being unfairly connected with dangerous and addictive substances.

“Had I heard that,” Keye tells Mental Floss, “I would’ve told the guy to get a good night’s sleep.”

According to Keye, the spot was born out of the advertising world’s desire to “un-sell” something. “The ad world has a guild, the American Association of Ad Agencies,” he says. “One of the board members, Phil Joanou, went to a meeting and said, ‘I think we should put together some kind of effort [against] hard drugs.’”

Everyone at the table nodded. This was the 1980s, when Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign was in full force and crack cocaine was becoming an epidemic. Under the volunteer ad coalition named the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, Joanou and the agencies got together and convinced television and radio stations to donate airtime to public service messages. The value of the spots was in excess of $300 million.

The problem was that no one was creating any content to fill those empty spaces. “Big ad agencies move very slowly,” Keye says. Eventually, Joanou came to Keye and asked if his firm could come up with a concept before that valuable airtime was taken away by impatient station operators.

Keye agreed. At the time, the drug being targeted by the Partnership was cocaine. “It was the new, 'wonderful,' no-problem drug,” Keye says. “All up, no down. We knew we didn’t want to feature addicts, but put it out there for young adults and teenagers. The message was, there could be irreversible damage.”

At Keye/Donna/Pearlstein, copywriter Larre Johnson and art director Scot Fletcher came up with the fried egg scenario; Keye got an agreement from director Joe Pytka (who later directed the 1996 Michael Jordan movie Space Jam) to film it at no cost. Actor John Roselius was paid $360 to practice cracking an egg with one hand so the yolk wouldn’t break.

“He doesn’t say it, but you get the impression he’s talking to his younger brother or his son,” Keye says of the simple dialogue. “We got razzed a little about it, like it was almost Victorian, or not very hip.”

Once it was edited, Keye brought the tape over to the Partnership’s newly-opened New York City offices. “They didn’t have a playback machine,” Keye says, “so we went into an electronics store and asked the salesman to play it.” Across a dozen or so televisions, Roselius cracked the egg, let it fry, and delivered his line. The Partnership had no questions. “The client was very pleased.”

The ad began airing in 1987 in both 30- and 10-second versions—heavy repetition, Keye says, was responsible for the ad’s longevity. “It ran all day long for three or four months. The Partnership didn’t have [another commercial] ready. In advertising, it’s about repetition.”

And it worked, or at least it appeared to. In 1990, the Partnership announced that market research indicated 88 percent of teenagers believed even occasional use of cocaine was dangerous, up from 78 percent before the ads began airing. (At one point, it was believed 92 percent of teens had seen some version of the ad, and so had a lot of dealers. “Let’s go fry an egg” became slang for using.)

While Keye/Donna/Pearlstein benefited indirectly from the ad’s success—it helped them land a lucrative California anti-smoking campaign two years later—they didn’t own the ads. “The Partnership owned it, and they did another one 10 years later” about heroin, Keye says. A newer spot, which began circulating online in 2016, follows up the “Any Questions?” tag with child actors asking lots of questions.

Last year, the face of the campaign—Roselius, now 72 years old—told Rooster Magazine that passersby will still refer to him as “Egg Guy.” He garnered some ironic press when he voted to legalize recreational marijuana in California and made a curious admission: He had tried cocaine a couple of times in the ‘80s.

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