For a few weeks every fall, American consumers are inundated with ads for a primal horror escaped from the bowels of McDonald’s: the McRib. This sandwich consists of ground, processed pork shoulder enticingly repackaged into a vaguely rib-shaped lump, slathered in barbecue sauce and garnished with gratuitous pickles and onion. It’s an extremely divisive item, whose popularity seems predicated largely on its scarcity (though, for the sake of not starting fights, I’ll concede that some people do seem to enjoy it).
The McRib was born of necessity. In 1981, a nationwide chicken shortage led McDonald’s head chef Rene Arend to consider another non-beef item. “We had to come up with something to give the other franchises as a new product,” Arend recalled. “So the McRib came about because of the shortage of chickens.” The Luxembourg-born Arend developed the sandwich after a trip to the Carolinas introduced him to the wonders of southern barbecue. Assuming, not unreasonably, that there would be a national market for a similar item, McDonald’s engineered the McRib.
The sandwich was launched with heavy promotional fanfare, in a heavy cross-promotion with the pork industry which bemoaned pig meat’s absence in fast food. Unfortunately, its initial run met with curiosity rather than excitement. People would try it, once, and switch back to Big Macs on their next visit. Once the chicken shortage abated, the immediate reason for the McRib’s existence faded, and McNuggets regained their former prominence. In 1985, most American markets quietly pulled McRib from their menu. McDonald’s had to settle for the sandwich’s popularity in Germany, Luxembourg and other European countries where pork was a staple food.
The McRib began to resurface occasionally as a promotional item, including a renewed push in 1989, with the first pre-internet stirrings of a cult following making itself known. The impetus for the McRib’s return, however, was the release of The Flintstones in 1994. Those old enough to remember that cinematic masterpiece recall the bottomless truck of promotional tie-ins, and McDonald’s unsurprisingly jumped onboard. Resembling something Fred Flintstone might consume, the sandwich became the centerpiece of the Grand Poobah Meal, promoted with tie-in ads featuring Rosie O’Donnell and John Goodman. McDonald’s gambled, correctly, that Americans would copy the dietary habits of a gluttonous, dim-witted caveman who betrayed his best friend to climb the corporate ladder.
Having received John Goodman’s coveted endorsement, the McRib joined McDonald’s rotating menu, though only in a few markets did it remain a regular item. Through sheer persistence and heavy promotion its cult following became loud and vocal. In 2005, McDonald’s stoked the scarcity fires, launching a “McRib farewell tour” to convince consumers that this sandwich most people hadn’t liked in the first place was going away. McRib sales spiked, and McDonald’s got the message. Every fall the sandwich makes its breathless return, accompanied with ballyhoo elevating a squished, ketchup-slathered hot dog to the Second Coming of Christ.
So, there you have it. The most baffling McDonald’s promotion is the result of forced marketing, Neanderthals with poor impulse control and, quite possibly, fluctuating pork prices. The next time you bite into a McRib, think of Fred Flintstone and the fickleness of the farming industry.