Deja Vu: McDonald's Revives Cheeseburger Non-Favorite

It was supposed to be the death of the Double Cheeseburger. After a series of high level powwows at McDonald's Corp.'s headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill., it was decided in 1972 that a couple of new items called the Quarter Pounder and the Quarter Pounder with Cheese would replace the double burgers that were losing favor with the fast-food crowd.

"The Quarter Pounder prevailed," said David Green, vice president of national marketing at McDonald's. "And the Double Cheeseburger--well, it came off the menu board." In fact, the double burgers got dropped like greased watermelons.

Since then, however, the Double Cheeseburger has led a double life. And it has emerged as the ace in the hole that McDonald's executives turn to when they want to give a new look to their menu without pushing big bucks into new product development.

And it's back again these days in the form of something called the Double Feature--a Double Cheeseburger and large order of french fries.

When it resurfaced nearly six weeks ago as a menu item at McDonald's, it marked the fourth time since its alleged death that the Double Cheeseburger has made a comeback. In a few more weeks, the Double Cheeseburger will once again be banished temporarily from the menu boards. But executives at the nation's most successful fast-food chain say it is destined to return, again and again.

Competitors who have eyed the success of the product are just now starting to mimic its promotional formula. And marketing experts say that--almost by accident--McDonald's was among the first major fast-food operators to make use of a formula that costs little but pays huge dividends in customer count: limited time promotions.

"The fact that you don't see something year-round makes it that much more precious," said Jack Roth, president of the Los Angeles firm Admarketing, which oversees some regional Burger King advertising. "It's like bringing back a special flavor of ice cream."

Agrees Bob Santelman, vice president and management supervisor at the Los Angeles ad firm Keye/Donna/Pearlstein: "When something is brought out for a limited time, its value automatically goes up in the consumer's mind.'

So, how does the McDonald's brain trust decide when to put the Double Cheeseburger back on the fire? "It's not really driven by competitive concerns," Green said. "It's usually just a bell that goes off in somebody's head in the marketing department."

But McDonald's most recent reincarnation of the Double Cheeseburger comes during slow times in the fast-food industry. And Santelman--whose firm creates advertising for Del Taco Inc.--suspects that the two are related. "When McDonald's finds itself in a particularly competitive environment, they don't even have to go to the expense of coming up with a new product. They can just pull the Double Cheeseburger off the shelf and dust it off."

Now, Burger King Corp. thinks that it, too, has also found a product it can whip off the shelf--the Hot Topper. This hamburger with mushrooms and swiss cheese has reappeared in a number of regions twice in two years. "You always want to have openings for short-term products," said Joyce Myers, a Burger King spokeswoman. "Everything can't be on the menu all the time."

Firm Stockpiles Awards--and That's No Fib

It is a redundancy that the ad firm Chiat/Day Inc. has come to relish.

For three years running, the Los Angeles agency has won the West Coast's most prestigious ad award--the "Sweepstakes" grand prize presented at the annual Belding Awards competition.

But to say that Chiat/Day is a shoo-in this year would be a Joe Isuzu-sized lie.

After all, when the awards ceremony takes place March 12, at the Century Plaza Hotel, Chiat/Day's commercial for California Cooler will come head to head with that tallest teller of tales, Joe Isuzu, the commercial character whose hugely successful campaign for Isuzu Motors Ltd. was created by the West Coast office of Della Femina, Travisano & Partners. Another hot contender is the firm Keye/Donna/Pearlstein, whose carefree cows in TV spots for Jerseymaid Milk Products Inc. have also raised eyebrows.

Still, many industry executives say that once again, Chiat/Day will likely run off with the competition's grand prize--and perhaps some of the 40 other awards for television, radio and print ads. That would mark an unprecedented fourth grand prize in a row for the agency.

"Chiat/Day always has the inside edge," said Nancy Shalek, general manager of the Los Angeles office of W. B. Doner and Co. "They have clients who can pay for the kind of productions that win," she said. "And besides that, they do beautiful work."

Others, however, scoff at Chiat/Day's long chain of wins. "Sometimes I wonder if they're in the business of winning awards or of creating advertising that sells," one industry executive said. Last year, Chiat/Day entered more ads than any other contestant.

Whoever does win, however, leaves with a lot more than kudos. Agency executives say that top industry prizes can ultimately translate into new billings that, over the years, can add up to millions of dollars. And while the ad industry's top prizes remain the coveted Clio Awards, executives say that the 21-year-old Belding Awards have risen to near-national stature.

Certainly, the Hollywood atmosphere of the ceremony has played a role in that rise. In fact, some big-name celebrities who have recently starred in commercials--such as singer Donna Mills and Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon--will be on hand to receive honorary awards, said Sandra Inbody-Brick, executive producer of the event. Even David Leisure--who plays Joe Isuzu--will be on tap to receive an honorary Belding Bowl. No lie.

And the truth is, ad clients are becoming increasingly award conscious.

Indeed, Della Femina's client, Isuzu, will have a table full of its executives at the ceremony, said Peter Stranger, president of Della Femina's Los Angeles office. "This is the Academy Awards of advertising on the West Coast." Why shouldn't they come along?"

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