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A hundred years ago, Roy Allen opened a string of root beer stands in California in partnership with Frank Wright. A&W was the name they used for their bottled and draft root beers as well as their roadside restaurants. By 1980 A&W had more than 2,000 restaurants and the company was now led by Alfred Taubman, a University of Michigan dropout. Looking to make his mark, introduced a burger weighing 5.3 ounces to outdo McDonalds 4-ounce burger. Taubman called his a one-third-pound hamburger “a bigger, beefier third-pound burger.” He was sure his bigger burger would be a success, but it was a huge flop. It wasn’t the taste, because the A&W burger beat the Quarter Pounder in blind tests. Taubman says it wasn’t the TV and radio ads headlined The Third is the Word but who knows? We do know that Taubman sold A&W in 1994 and moved on to revolutionize retail shopping with his indoor malls and made so much money he once owned Sotheby’s. A conviction for price-fixing there earned him a $7.5 million fine and 10 months in jail.

Like most decision-makers, Taubman assumed he’d done all the right things

Like so many others, he didn’t bother to conduct research before making his decisions. He only resorted to research after he had spent lots of money on a product and promotion that didn’t work. Taubman only found out later in a massive unintended consequence that his ⅓-pound claim name was perceived as a negative by consumers. Postmortem research revealed that more than half of their study subjects believed a third of a pound weighed less than a fourth of a pound. They were unwilling to pay the same price for a burger weighing ⅓ of a pound because they believed it had less meat than one weighing ¼ of a pound.

Lesson #1 in choosing product names

Consumer perception is more important than executive assumptions.

Americans aren’t very good at math

The name Quarter Pounder was a brilliant choice by McDonald’s because a quarter of a pound seems to most people like more than 4 ounces. Too many burger buyers don’t know the difference between a numerator and a denominator. Too many burger buyers are unaware that the magnitude of a fraction depends on the relationship between its numerator and denominator. The bigger the gap, the smaller the fraction and the smaller the share. Of course, a simple visualization would have helped. You get larger pieces if you divide a pie into thirds instead of fourths.

Numeracy refers to our ability to use numbers, just as literacy refers to our ability to use words

The United States Department of Education conducted an evaluation of literacy and numeracy among adults aged 16-65 in 22 developed countries around the world. At each of three levels of educational attainment American adults were below average. USA Today says the US ranks 31st in numeracy (the math equivalent of literacy) because it does a bad job teaching math in public schools.

What’s in a name?

Regardless of the name, Taubman could have had more success making the ounce-to-ounce comparison: 5.3 to 4. He also could have said A&W’s burger is one-third larger than the Quarter Pounder. What might have happened if chose to promote his bigger burger this way?

or this way?

If he had tested the possibilities beforehand, he would have known enough about his audience to make better decisions. After losing lots of money, A&W changed the name of the 1/3-Pound Burger to the Papa Burger and added a Mama Burger and a Baby Burger.

In 2021, A&W introduced a new ⅓-pound burger

lbbonline.com says the earlier third-pound marketing failure provided the perfect idea for a campaign for Americans who fear fractions. Yet this time they called it a 3/9ths Burger, which I’m pretty sure is another fraction.

The agency of record saw an opportunity to “flip a story on its head and convert a failure into a successful reboot by being sarcastic and making a joke.” My first reaction to the news is that because the failure was 40 years ago, not many people under 60 would make the connection, much less see the humor in it. And five years ago, A&W dumped their suburban drive-in strategy in favor of an urban millennial strategy, with customers unable to make the connection or get the joke.

Upside-down measurements

Anyone who has worked with metal wire will tell you that the larger the number on the packaging, the thinner the wire. This is backward to our way of thinking that bigger numbers mean bigger things. Wires are made by drawing and stretching steel, copper, and aluminum through successively smaller holes into long, continuous threads. The gauge system was invented to describe the number of drawing operations involved in the production of the wire, not the diameter of the wire itself. The drawing and stretching process makes the wire longer and thinner, so wire drawing increases the gauge, not the diameter. And the more times you do it, the thinner the wire and the higher the gauge number.

Shotgun gauges are also counter-intuitive

They don’t make sense to us unless we’re familiar with how the measuring system came about. Shotguns use the same system devised for the cannons of long ago that used black powder to fire round cannonballs, you know, the ones on the pirate ships. Cannonballs were measured by their weight, so as they got heavier, their diameters and circumferences got bigger, too, requiring cannons to have bigger holes, called bores. A 12-gauge shotgun has a barrel that is bigger around than the one on a 20-gauge shotgun. It also has a lot more kick and makes lots more noise.

The distance between the inner faces of the two parallel rails of any railroad track is called the gauge 

More than half the world today uses the standard 1,435 mm gauge, which is 4 feet, 8 ½ inches. As the story goes, the adoption of that oddball unit of measurement involves the Romans long before trains had been invented. The ruts made by the wheels of carts and chariots at Pompeii were 4 feet, 9 inches apart. The heavier the wagons, the deeper the ruts made by their wheels. Over time, vehicle widths became more or less standardized, especially when pulled by two or more horses or oxen side-by-side.

Toy train gauges

Model trains also measure the distance between the rails. Because they’re consumer-oriented, they avoid the confusion of bigger-equals-smaller gauges by replacing them with letters instead of numbers. The above graphic from trains.com shows the same toy locomotive in all six scales, the largest of which is 10 times the size of the smallest.

Want to look at old things in new ways, see the commonplace in more detail, and hear complicated subject matter explained in simple terms?

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