Story time IV: Ronald, patron saint of ethnography

RonaldCommercial ethnography is sometimes the method of last resort. All other methods, quantitative and qualitative, have been tried and all have failed. 

That’s why, a couple of years ago, I got a call from The Coca-Cola Company (TCCC). A great torrent of Coke flows through McDonald’s every day. So TCCC was particularly concerned by a new finding: that consumers order a smaller size of Coke when passing through the drive-through than when ordering indoors at the counter. Multiply this difference (even if it’s just 3 ounces) by millions of drinks per day over thousands of outlets, and you get the idea.

All the obvious methods had failed. TCCC had collected every kind of quantitative data and subjected it to every statistical manipulation. Focus groups had been held. Consumers panels had been convened and consulted. The experts had been consulted.

All the obvious answers had been exhausted. No, it wasn’t that people were worried about spilling their Coke in the car. No, it wasn’t that they were concerned about bladders filling and perhaps exploding on route. This is was for both McDonald’s and TCCC a WTF moment.

So TCCC asked me if I could solve this problem? I said yes, because I always say yes. But I figured that if all other methods had failed, no one would be inclined to crucify the method (or me) if ethnography did too.

Off I went to Southern California. I found a McDonald’s with the right mix of consumers and a robust drive through line. The manager was a little mystified but entirely helpful. I decided to see if I could interview people in the drive-through. And predictably, this made people in the drive through line a little uncomfortable.

I was wearing a suit and tie, to make myself look more professional. Actually, wearing a suit in a drive-through line really just makes you look Martian. But that’s good too. To magnify the effect, I wore a little blue McDonald’s cap. Now, I looked like a complete asshole. To be fair.

Very shortly, I was feeling like an asshole, too. The longest you can talk to someone who is driving through a drive-through line is about 40 seconds. You have no longer introduced and explained yourself than the driver is ready to move on. You can walk along beside the car as if shuffles forward, but this is tricky because you have to walk backwards, and the lane is narrow.

So most of your interviews last about 22 seconds. It is hot, very hot. It is so hot that I am soaked right through and my camera person, Suz, has discovered that the sun block has run off her forehead into her eyes and she can barely see. At this point, we aren’t getting very much more on camera than we are in the interviews.

I can’t tell you the outcome of the research. That was bought and paid for by TCCC, and what are the chances that I would ever work again if I blabbed (and blogged) my research results. But, at the risk of blowing my own horn, I can tell you this. The idea finally came to me, out there in the broiling sun, and when I gave it to my client over the phone, she gasped. In my experience, this is the best sound a client can make. I have only heard it once.

But let me end on a methodological point. Ethnography must always start with an act of humility. You are talking to the respondent because they know and you don’t. They are the expert and you are the supplicant. You have to communicate this early on, especially if you are talking to someone who might be intimated by you or your appearance. Nothing quite gets this job done like a suit, tie and a blue McDonald’s hat. In these circumstances, I might as well have been dressed up like Ronald McDonald.

But there is a second grounds for humility, one that exists for all researchers. Every time I drive by a McDonald’s, I look to see if they embraced my strategy or adopted any of my recommendations. Five years later, they haven’t done a thing.

57 thoughts on “Story time IV: Ronald, patron saint of ethnography

  1. Tom Guarriello

    Maybe Jim Suroweicki could write a follow-up book: “The Wisdom of Crowns.” ‘Cause, as we research and consultant types know all too well, if the guy/gal with the crown didn’t come up with the idea, it’s not wise to try to get it implemented.

  2. Grant

    Independent George, sorry!, Grant

    Tom, I think corporations will budge and that they do so much more quickly and cleverly than any not-for-profit I have worked with. I am not sure what the problem here was. Thanks, Grant

  3. Tom Guarriello

    Roger your not-for-profit comment, Grant. I spent the first half of my career in that world and “moribund” sums up the thinking there, I’m afraid.

  4. brian

    The discovery of an off-Broadway hit playing just under the proscenium golden arches of McDonald’s is quite a bargain! A better deal you couldn’t get anywhere.

    Most often, a proscenium arch is the opening between the auditorium and stage, a place where auditorium and stage are divided architecturally and functionally. At McDonald’s, the human comedy of symbolic actions and multiple truths was unfolding on both sides of the counter-top divide, and right before our very eyes.

    Here, people from all races and nationalities were practicing and acting out what it means to be American.

    I really needed all five senses just to begin to understand all the meanings that the actors were creating. All five senses – and intuition – to get the total gestalt of the scene.

    Behind the counter, it seemed that hamburgers and fries came into spontaneous existence at the speed of the Big Bang – the “Big Mac Big Bang” I’ll call it.

    And out in the seating area, these goods were dis-aggregated just as quickly.

    OK maybe it wasn’t the creation of the universe. Maybe it was more like the Wild West played out all over again. Ghost Burgers of the Purple Sage.

    The fries were removed by force from their Concord stagecoach-like shuttles and held up at finger-point. Then, picked out one-by-one, they were completely at the mercy of Liberty Valence’s henchmen there on the scene to do evil. Likewise, the burgers were removed from their cardboard and styrene strongboxes, and treated with an almost ignominious delight by the henchmen patrons’ canine desires.

    Here it was — American cowboy corporate commerce at its best — the fast dissolution of goods at discount, with no visible thought to any costs that might be exported to the public commons.

    Where would the fat go? Would it clog the floor drain, or just the health care system thirty years hence? Would the cardboard, paper and plastic recycle?

    The henchmen patrons had no mind for knowing.

    All was swept away from them, all just for the sake of convenience.

    In the play, the staff at McDonald’s witnessed the creation of this universe, waited for high noon, and saw the sunset forty-four times each day — if not many more times — but none of it with the existential angst of a John Ford.

    The employees had a unique role to portray to the public. They were buying and living American tradition, and upwardly-mobile, hierarchical relationships, all framed in meritocracy.

    Imagine the white-shirt-and-tie manager, someone of diversity or not, and a staff of uniformed teenagers and underemployed grandmothers.

    All of them wore baseball caps and visors. All except the manager.

    His white shirt signaled that he was the good guy, and the tie signified that he might be the sheriff of this corner of a western genre. He holstered a wireless transmitter and spoke into a microphone, and maybe he was presciently connected — like a telegrapher – ready to signal the cavalry detachment picketed out yonder at some distant frontier fort.

    The teenagers smiled and took orders, and learned to handle money. The ones with higher math skills – those who could mentally count change without showing distress – moved the patrons quickly to earn invisible points, karmic points, points that might just be redeemed for future promotion.

    Their eagerness to please was balanced by the resignation of the elderly grandmothers who wiped down the trays, and who cleaned-up after the extended family.

    Everyone had a defined sense of place, a job-to-do, in a team, and all in an American-style hierarchy.

    But what besides exchange of money held together these actors – the producers and the consumers — on either side of this proscenium arch?

    Certainly, the physical facilities layout suggested three themes: familiarity, trust, and safety.

    It is fairly well known that McDonald’s, an institution created and run by human being, exhibits all the foibles of human beings.

    In other words, it’s a mixed message, and a dramatic message of both good and evil.

    For every child-choking toy that they have sold, McDonald’s has likewise, redesigned their marketing efforts and created spaces that aim to keep children safe.

    State-of-the-art technologies, exacting standards, special production lines, the division of labor, and long-term relationships with key suppliers, all ensure absolute commitment to food quality. Even Ronald’s hens get fifty percent more space and better treatment than that common in the poultry industry.

    But in the end — for the chickens at least — it’s all McNuggets anyway.

    And, for every program initiated with Environmental Defense to reduce solid waste at the source, there is some anti-corporate protest. It usually is about the promotion of junk food, the unethical targeting of children — the exploitation of workers, animal cruelty, damage to the environment — about the global domination of corporations over lives, and, about the imposition of cookie-cutter facilities on the historic fabrics of communities.

    And in the end, none of this especially matters at all.

    Good and evil, and perceptions thereof, are much like the tides of the ocean.

    In some places it’s like the Bay of Fundy, or maybe Inchon, and MacArthur is going to have a hell of a time landing the troops. In other places, you can surf right in to shore and maybe get a date with Gidget.

    In the end, McDonald’s existence matters for only one reason.

    McDonald’s matters because it is a place where all races and nationalities can practice what it means to live globally in a local world.

    My theory to test this ‘glocal’ idea proceeds thus:

    Everyone has a different idea of what it means to be the global savant, to be at the top of the heap, and America is merely the current and latest proxy for global stylization.

    But forget America for a moment.

    When people decide that they want to model and practice global culture — in their own terms — they first only require the perception of familiarity, trust, and safety.

    This is what McDonald’s really sells. The burgers are just ghost riders of the purple sage.

    McDonald’s has a vested interest in continuing to provide an ever-expanding version of a special narrative – that is — McDonalds is basically selling the antidote to everyday life.

    The other side of the coin is this sad observation:

    throughout the world, people can and often do, suddenly find themselves in unfamiliar territory, where there is little trust, and safety is a compromise.

    It’s a hard way to go.

    Cultures – both internally and in proximity to one another — can bring forth much in the way of unpleasant friction.

    McDonald’s can’t do much about the trust issue. As noted, they’ve tried mightily, but people are either with them or against them. Travel the Seven Seas and you’ll find that there is not much accounting for personal taste in the various brands of cultural dyspepsia.

    On the other hand, familiarity and safety frictions are the easiest conditions to consider.

    McDonald’s stores seem familiar to everyone. Sure they come in different sizes, shapes and settings, but they are familiar nonetheless.

    In my store, spaciousness rules. The store sits on a corner lot, and big windows allow one to gaze upon the spaciousness of the western landscape just outside. Art hangs on the walls, and the art depicts the spaciousness of western scenery – cacti and canyons, erosion, and lizards and color and light.

    Wheelchair-accessible sidewalks, wide doors, and over-sized bathroom toilet stalls signal the spaciousness of inclusion.

    The preparation area contains behemoths of steel and aluminum, battleship-sized grills and deep-frying frigates. All this just to cook a burger?

    The dining area is composed of discrete seating areas, each area demarcated by wide isles and wood and architectural glass-brick dividers.

    Tropical plants flourish in ecosystems that seem to have established themselves atop the room dividers – sky islands of diversity among a sea of horizontal wooden planes that are set about functionally to hold and comfort every super-sized posterior that might lumber by in search of respite.

    The parking lot holds a variety of battle cruisers, and some take up two parking spaces, just to avoid the friction that might come of car doors banging car doors, or of having to turn the wheel hard to make an uneventful exit.

    If this sounds familiar, it’s because the material culture and spatial organization of McDonald’s has been thought out by designers, civil and social engineers, and zoning authorities, and all is made in the name of familiarity, comfort, and built-in-safety.

    I suspected that it’s the built-in-safety that so impresses foreigners that maybe the frictions of culture and life can be reduced.

    So during my second lunch foray, I asked a customer standing in line in front of me, an Asian girl, what she thought about the wheel-chair and ADA-compliant facilities.

    She looked like she might be an immigrant, not native-born, merely by the way she physically stood and moved in space. She spoke English with a partial Guang-dong (Cantonese) accent.

    She told me…. “They would never do that in my country. It’s pretty impressive. There is a law and people follow it, and anybody can come in here. I think that’s good, and I like it.”

    “But what do crippled people do in your town where you come from?” I asked. “They stay home,” she said. “They don’t come to places like this.”

    This burger store is full of placards and warnings:

    These doors to remain unlocked during business hours; caution, piso mojado; employees must wash hands before returning to work; children in play room must be supervised by a parent or adult; maximum occupancy 170; caution hot; please recycle… and so on… almost ad infinitum.
    These placards are the material culture of liability in a litigious society.

    I navigated my food tray over to a young police officer seated at a table. He seemed a little irritated that I would approach him, but he grinned when he heard my question.

    “You know. All these signs and warnings all over the store? Do people pay any attention to them?” I asked.

    “Naw. Are you kidding? That’s just the store protecting itself,” he replied. “People don’t pay attention to any of that. That’s for the lawyers. People just come in here to eat. They don’t see that stuff.”

    “So, you’re in uniform on your lunch break?” I asked.

    “The store pays me to sit here. I’m off duty, but in uniform to keep the kids in line,” he said. “They come over from the high school and raise hell.”

    “I guess that scares some people, but I noticed some guys with tattoos. They look sort of like gang-bangers,” I said, throwing my head slightly in their direction. “Don’t they scare people. And what about that homeless guy outside?” I said nodding at a figure that seemed to be lurking outside near the big glass doors.

    “He’s harmless. He comes here just about every other day to use the pay phone to call someone. Those guys ARE gang-bangers. and we know them pretty well. This is sort of neutral territory for them. They can’t mess with the neighborhood here, because I’ll get em,” the cop said. “The high school kids get rowdy and cause the most trouble. They don’t know when to quit.”

    “So do people, feel safe here?” I asked.

    “Sure, but they don’t think about it. It’s nothing in their mind. They just want to eat,” said the cop.

    “But the high school kids?” I asked.

    “I come in for a few hours at lunch and after school, and the kids settle down,” he said. “So yeah, these are all locals, and they feel safe.”

    “What about strangers to the neighborhood,” I asked. “ What happens when they drive in and come into the store.”

    “They usually go to the restroom first, and then they order something or ask for directions,” said the cop. The gang-bangers sort of ignore strangers, except if its a pretty girl. You know, testosterone.”

    I grinned broadly, and said, “Ok, thanks a lot.”

    “Sure,” he said.

    I went over to an empty table, and sat next to the gang-bangers.

    “Hey, I was just talking with your local guy over there, he says you guys are OK.”

    They all started laughing that I would say it, and it seemed that they were a bit surprised that I would even start a conversation or talk with them.

    “Ay, Meyers, nuestro Mayor Domo,” one fellow said grinning and making eye contact with me.

    “Yeah be careful or he’ll think you’re trying to buy drugs, or something.” They all laughed.

    “OK. Muchas Gracias, y excusa me por favor, porque… yo no tengo… no hay opportunidades a hablar en Espanol cada dia, y falta practica de hablar… so… can I ask you something… en Ingles?” I queried.

    “Sure. I heard you talking with him. Something about ‘safe-ty’…” he said.

    “Yeah. This is a familiar place, but is everyone safe?” I asked.

    “Yeah. The girls carry cell phones and they pretend to talk into them when they walk in. That way they don’t get scared that we want to check them out…” he said. The guys all chortled and laughed. One fellow almost choked on his mouthful of burger.

    “A trick? Que mala mujeres! Chistosas!” I said.

    “Yeah. Sure. You know. It’s all a game. Everyone has to feel OK, safe. And, the good-looking ones know how to talk to anybody. The other girls just use the phone like a toy, something to make them feel safe,” he said.

    “That “China Bonita” you were talking to in line, she did it when she came in.”

    “So you got that figured out,” I said.

    “Yeah. It don’t ring, and they don’t push the buttons, so you know right away,” he said grinning

    “Come on, vamos,” one of them said, and they all started to shift to get up and leave.

    “Hey, muchas gracias!” I said. “ I’ll make sure to look at the phone, too, next time.”

    They all laughed at my sexual innuendo.

    Yep, I thought, in the end, McDonald’s matters for only one reason.

    It’s a place where people can interact and exchange information, and a place to watch others, but all of it is done in their own cultural terms.

    McDonald’s gives them a stage where they can see and feel American ideas in motion, and then they can act out a scene. They first only require the perception of familiarity, trust, and safety.

    I think this is what McDonald’s really sells.

  5. LK

    just wondering….did any of the drive thru-ers cite mccracken (1988) on ‘clothing as language’ in response to the combinatorial liberties taken by your business suit topped with blue mcdonald’s cap?

  6. travis

    People in the drive thru get the smaller drink because the large drinks DON’T FIT IN THE CUP HOLDERS! This isn’t rocket science.

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  8. Judd Antin

    I was hoping against hope that your next effort after the suit & tie would involve dressing up like Ronald himself. Would that be the McDonalds equivalent of ‘going native?’ 🙂

  9. Grant

    To every one who has guessed at the answer. It is not cup holders! In fact, no one, so far, has got the answer. And listen I am not soliciting guesses. Best, Grant

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  11. Grant

    Brian, zounds, you have undone even Brian. I like the stage metaphor, which leaves the drive-through strangely empty and underspecified. And thanks for the ethnographic data. Splendid. One of the endless topics that never get written up because anthropologists insist that their’s isnt a culture (when all the really mean is that they long ago stopped working on the ideas, on the very project, that would allow them to understand what and how it is a culture. Thanks!

    And Travis, actually it is rocket science, or getting closer to in its intellectual demands, which makes it especially disappointing that anthropologists gave up the study. I blame smug nitwits like Ortner or Marcus. But the culprits are in fact too many too enumerate (or adequately villify). Thanks, Grant

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  13. Ben Bargagliotti

    My two guesses:
    1. People feel that the drive-thru takes longer….and that by ordering a smaller drink, it will take less time.

    2. People that walk inside have to get out of their air-conditioned cars and get hot before going inside….they want more to drink to cool down. People in cars are still cool and aren’t as thirsty.

  14. Jesse

    My guess is actually that a lot more parents with CHILDREN go through the drive-thru. Children don’t drink as much as full grown peoples, people.

  15. Gene Cowan

    The menu boards at the drive through post “regular size” prices. These prices include a “regular” drink. That’s the price that’s in one’s mind as they order.
    People who use drive throughs are usually a) in a hurry, b) lazy, or c) paying for their meal with whatever change is in their vehicle.
    People who walk in to McDonald’s usually are picking up something more substantial — to take home? — and have more cash on them.
    Thus, the people in their cars are less likely to “upsize” their order and get a bigger drink.

  16. Ed Fisher

    It’s easier to resist the pressures of the hard sell (“would you like to supersize that?”) when you don’t have to refuse the person to their face.

    Call it a form of peer pressure.

  17. Jesse

    Upon rereading Grant’s closing paragraph, I recind my previous obnoxious comment and have to agree with Gene’s “regular” pricing statement.

  18. Wally

    The answer’s obvious to anyone who’s ever consumed a gallon of soda from a drivethru and then gotten stuck in slow traffic on the way to their destination…

  19. Andrew

    I’ve got it: The large cup — and thus your drink — gets warmer faster outisde, in a hot car, than inside, in a freezing restaurant.

  20. Exit-Row

    I agree with Wally. The reason I would order a small rather than a large is because I am most likely on my way somewhere, and don’t want to be tied down to the restrictions of the bowels later on.

  21. Andrew

    It’s not “bathrooms.” The original posting he says: “No, it wasn’t that they were concerned about bladders filling and perhaps exploding on route.”

  22. jason

    I’m not sure how you can definitively say that its not cup size for knowing myself, and knowing the size of the tiny cupholders in my car, i have often made the conscious choice to get a medium sized drink in the drive-thru.

    other factors:
    1) am i only getting ONE drink?
    2) i never finish a large in the restaurant, thus, i will never finish a large drink in my car and will have no where to put it once finished.

  23. Brian

    In my expereince with drive throughs I don’t think I have ever been asked to supersize it or what size I want period.

    If I order a #4 it is all medium.

    I also don’t order a larger drink because when you turn corners or have to stop short the drink can tip over easier.

  24. Devin

    It’s one of these three things or a combination of the three:

    1. At the drive through, the pictures of the meals show either a medium size drink, or no drink at all. As such, the visual of the size in the picture subconsciously tells the drive-thru customer “that should be big enough.”

    2a. Ordering from the counter denotes staying at the establishment and having a sit-down meal. So having more to drink is an ideal (especially if there are no free refills.)

    2b. Drive-thru = quick bite to eat. Drive-thru customers are eating their order in 1 of 2 places: in their car while they drive, or at their destination (home or office.) Since they’re having the meal and the drink at another location, the mentality may be, “oh, i have something to drink at home/office.” OR “I can always pick up another drink if this isn’t enough.”

    Well, that’s enough of my rambling…

  25. RobbyB

    The second to the last line is the biggest clue. “Every time I drive by a McDonald’s, I look to see if they embraced my strategy or adopted any of my recommendations. ”

    The larger cups are heavier, bigger, and more cumbersome to get from the small dive-thru window, through the car window, if they make it that far. Inside, you get a tray to carry your drink on. There’s very little chance to drop it.

    My guess is that the recommendation was to install trays or an easy way to get the larger cups in the car.

  26. absurd

    People arent as thristy when they’re hunched over driving all day. Also, people get hot and therefore thirsty when they get out of the cool car and into the hot sun on the way to the door.

  27. Steven

    Devin: several McDonald’s restuarants to which I’ve been in my time had de facto free refills, as the fountain drinks were located outside the counter. I would think this would have an effect opposite to what is observed.

    Also, IIRC, the menu for the drive through lane and the menu inside are worded similarly, so there’s no significant difference stemming from that — “regular” means the same inside as it does out.

    I agree with Robby above: indeed this is a clue which has not been adequately utilized.
    But I do recall being given a cardboard drink tray when ordering more than two drinks from the “drive through” window.

    I think one of the best guesses so far is the ease with which one can decline an “upsale” when speaking through an impersonal microphone to a remote cashier. Fear of spillage also seems plausible — you will recall the woman in whose lap hot coffee was spilled.

    My general feeling is that the idea of the drive-through is principally convenience. The larger the soda cup, the more fluid ounces one must contend with, and it seems less convenient.

    Another thought: if going to McDonald’s is one’s “guilty pleasure,” how likely is the same person to park and walk into the restaurant, in plain view? And how likely is the same person to be dieting, and, “diet” soda aside, conscious of the effects of a larger soda?

  28. Jeremiah

    It’s really simple, there are 5 main reasons and everyone has really hit on one of them.

    People are usually in a hurry
    The cup holders ARE way to small
    People don’t like to look to cheap / poor to afford / buy the larger size EGO
    The bladder issue
    Not as thirsty
    They are not getting asked face to face to supersize their order

  29. chip

    Since some of the obvious ideas have been ruled out, here are some theories with anthropological/economic import.

    First, two that relate to simple human limitations:

    1. Consumers eat food in the car more and more these days (the dashboard dining phenomenon). Yes, the drink fits the cupholder, but consumers may be likely to hang onto their drink and steer with the same hand at times, grabbing a bite of sandwich with the free hand. The diameter of a large cup in the comparison to the medium makes it hard to steer and hold the cup at the same time. I can do it, barely, but I’d bet my wife, with her smaller hands, could not.

    2. The straws are all the same length, and the straw for a large drink requires that you shove it down where there’s an inch sticking out in order to get the soft drink at the bottom–and then the cup better be perfectly level, since there’s not enough length to angle it to the bottom of the cup. Not an issue inside, but while driving a potential hazard.

    Still, I doubt that either of those would have elicited a gasp from a TCCC employee. And they are rational solutions that someone had probably thought of before.

    So, to a deeper level…

    If you think of the McDonald’s as a watering hole, where the traveler has arrived to dine and to quench his thirst and that of his horses or camels, the inside diner is experiencing the hospitality of his host, enjoying all he has to give. A larger drink is offered and accepted. But the drive-thru customer is visiting a lonely watering hole, devoid of human congress, with only a disembodied voice suggesting a larger drink. This traveler knows that they will have another watering hole not far away–they have not even left their horse, just stopped for a swig of water from the wineskins, so to speak. They stick with the regular drink, knowing there’s more water just down the road.

    Following that line, but on a less elemental level–consumers pick up on small cues much more than they realize, or even than most retailers realize. When they come inside the McDonald’s, several sensory cues suggest that a big drink would be a good idea–they SEE other people with big drinks–not so in the drive-thru. They SEE drinks flowing from the fountains into cups–large or small–but the message their brain gets is “refreshing beverages.” You can’t see that in the DT lane. They HEAR the liquid flowing from the fountains, and the sound of ice being scooped up and put into cups. Who doesn’t want a big drink when they come upon a stream in the forest, flowing with clear water? Grant points out, the solution came to him as he was standing in a suit in the heat. It seems to me that a solution he MAY have suggested is to put “refreshment cues” in the drive thru–not more pictures of sodas, but an actual flowing fountain, for example. Or a cup that is continuously being filled and drained. And landscaping to make the drive thru area seem like an oasis–someplace you’d stop to get a BIG DRINK for the road ahead. By contrast, what do you see now? Lots of colored pictures of food, a lot of brown metal framing (not very suggestive of thirst quenching) and if you’re unlucky, in the heat you get the smell of the nearby dumpster full of rotting food–not cues to drink up, but cues that the water hole is poisoned! Better just drink a little and make sure it’s ok.

  30. Corina

    People don’t order the larger sizes because they are ‘taller’ (the center of gravity is higher) and they tip over too easily. The trays they give you don’t prevent tipping at all either. You might order a large once, but then you tip it over almost immediately when you made the wicked hard left turn out of the McDonald’s parking lot that you always have to make, and your Coke tips over and soaks your car floor/seat/emergency brake.

    Since changing this would require new cup design and a new tray design, I imagine Coke is having a hard time convincing McDonalds to do it. It would probably also require an overhaul of the cup dispensing devices they have and would likely increase the cost of the cup and the increase the amount of labor to fill the cup. Even if it just takes a second more to put on a really sturdy lid or to place it in a better tray, those seconds add up for McDonalds.

  31. chris joseph

    Whenever I’m going through the drive-thru (thru looks so awkward in proximity to its correct spelling), I always end up getting one of the numbered meal combos.

    I always get it medium, which is the default. Not large. Not supersize.

    Medium denotes a regular size fry to accompany the drink. Because the drink sizes and fry sizes are tied together, and ordering something which deviates from the menu formula at mcdonalds notoriously prolongs your wait time, I always get the smaller drink than I would prefer. I don’t want a ton of fries I’m not going to eat, just so I can have the larger drink.

    I haven’t read all the comments to see if anyone else suggested this. I’m merely stating it because if you were to interview me in line while I was ordering, this is what I’d have told you.

  32. PurpleCar

    Could it have something to do with the “They always screw you at the drive-thru” perception?

    I have no scientific basis for this, but MickeyD’s drive-thru soda seems to have more ice in it, is more watered down, or has the wrong combination of soda syrup with seltzer, as compared to soda in the “restaurant.” (I also find that french fries’ boxes are stuffed better inside – but this may simply be my perception.)

    When going through a drive-up situation, I’d rather have tap water with ice in a cup (to wash the meal down quickly), but substituting water for soda in the order would just hold up the speediness of the drive-thru. I’m at the drive-thru because I’m hungry, not thirsty.

    But these issues aren’t “gasp-inducing,” and they don’t fit in with the other clues in the original post. So far, I like chip’s “sound theory” the best.

  33. Mark

    My car is an ’89 and doesn’t have cupholders so that doesn’t actually factor in. Likewise I don’t typically get drive-through and almost never go to McDonalds (though to be honest I dislike the actual taste of the product much more than the company).

    When I do order a drink from drive-through I typically either get what comes with a value meal or nothing at all. Whatever I drink it’ll usually be what I have at home/work/etc. rather than paying more for something. Admittedly this is a behavior I’ve learned from my parents.

    When I go inside though I almost always order a small drink if possible. I even dislike getting a value meal and ending up with a larger drink because I feel slightly ripped off and forced into it. The reasoning here is because almost every fast food chain has free refills. If I ever need more to drink I’ll just go get it rather than pay more.

    While likely irrevelant to all of this I almost always get my drinks without ice. The soda coming from the machine is already cold and ice will just reduce the amount of soda I’m getting as well as watering it down later on resulting in vastly reduced value.

  34. Barry Ritholtz

    Think destination (having lunch) versus “a stop along the way”

    Whats your goal? If its having lunch, than you go inside and enjoy the facilities.

    However, if you are on the way to somewhere else — if McD’s isnt your destination, but merely a stop along the way, you drive thru. Its about being mobile and time efficient and a larger beverage means the eventual stop is sooner rather than later.

    Depending upon how far you are going, you can attempt to reach your destination with no stops and hit the bathroom when you get there.

    If you are on the road for any length of time, and you need a quick refuel (you, not the car) you grab a quick bite. Those people who are late or have a lot of driving to do don’t eat in the restaurant, they drive thru and eat on the road.

    Its not bladders exploding — Its about getting to where you are going quicker with less stops.

  35. Barry Ritholtz

    I don’t know if you are a consultant (and therefore statisitically worthy of disdain), but here’s something quantifiable, and thus as a consultant anyonme can justify being overpaid by foolish companies: ICE.

    Most places ladle the ice in — it melts, turns the last third into undrinkable diluted water. Then the condensation on the outside of the cup runs down and pools where ever. And the cups themselves get waterlogged and flimsy over time. So you can blame the cups also.

    I suspect the people at either McDs or CocaCola aren’t complete idiots — they must have looked into this previously.

    Both the ICE and the Cups are quantifiable things they can measure and adjust and therefore think they accomplished someting, but I am not sure anyone is really thinking that far ahead. At best, drive thru customers recall they haven’t had any good experiences with large cups of fountain soda in cars.

    So I’m sticking with my prior post of not wanting to stop and pee . . .

  36. Andrew

    How about this: Some people, when they eat in the restaurant, like to take the little plastic top off their beverage and drink it that way, without the straw. But in the car, most people would be loathe to remove the top (for fear of spillage), and thus choose to keep the top on and drink through the straw. And I’d have to imagine that this subset of people (those who like to drink a large beverage, drink beverages without a top/straw inside, drink beverages with a top/straw in the car), would find one major problem with the large beverage + straw/top combination:

    Now, I’m not sure if they do this at McDonalds or not — because the only place I’ve seen it is at Starbucks — but perhaps it was that, for large beverages, the straws aren’t LONG enough. If this study was done a few years ago, an answer like that might elicit a gasp, because I know I was pretty impressed the first time I noticed those longer straws for, erm, “venti” beverages, which was a few years ago, and about which I thought, “Well it’s about time…”

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  38. Chris Woods

    I am going to say trash cans. Many people probably already have a cup of something old in the car. Because the McD doesn’t have a trash can to get rid of that prior to getting to the drive-thru, customers order the size they believe will fit in the adjacement cup-holder alongside the old drink.

  39. Obviously

    I don’t have time to read all of the comments, but if you didn’t say “Air Conditioning” then you’re dumb, and wrong.

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  42. Susan

    This comment list is an amazing testament to homo sapiens desire to solve problems. This is still bugging me … my latest observation is that you can see the size of the cups when you are inside, but there are no cups to observe outside.

    The other telling thing about this conversation is that it really highlights the importance of actually doing the research, not just thinking about a problem. Because when you actually do the research, you see many things that are not readily apparent from just thinking about something. (I may have to start hanging out at the drive through just to prevent myself from going bonkers trying to figure out the one correct answer.)

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