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Monday, October 18, 2010

I Wanna Be a McMillionaire So I Can Pay For Heart Surgery

It’s October again, and that means some of us will inevitably pack on the pounds as we try to win a million dollars from McDonald’s Monopoly.   I, for one, will probably not be participating with as much gusto as I have in the past.  It used to be that I lived for the days where I could justify buying a Big Mac, large French fry, and large drink just so I could get a few game pieces in the hopes of finding the elusive “Boardwalk” game piece.  Now, I’m a little older, a little wiser, a little bigger and a little less richer.   So, for me, the road to riches will not be paved in little pieces of paper with Monopoly properties on them. 

Monopoly is one of my all time favorite games.  I have two board game versions, two console editions, one for Playstation and one for the Wii.  I also have a version on my mobile phone which makes time go by quicker when you are stuck in waiting rooms or lobbies for various appointments.   Another favorite of mine is McDonald’s.   Of course, heading into my late 30s I really need to curb that love.   I have, in the past, frequented a McDonald’s two or three times a week just because of the Monopoly game going on at the time.  Hoping and praying for that little Boardwalk piece to show up on my large Diet Coke.

But it will never happen and I may have finally turned the corner on that hope.    Let’s face it.  You probably have a better chance at winning the Powerball than you do at hitting that top prize.   That is, of course unless it’s the year 2000 and you know Jerome Jacobson.  He’s the guy that was the chief of security for the sub contracted company hired by McDonald’s to handle the organization and promotion of the game.  He pulled out all the rare pieces and handed them out to associates who then would go and claim most of the top prizes that year.     I had no idea what these “rare” pieces were about.  I was under the impression that there were pieces just scattered about and it was luck of finding them.

But I learned the hard way.   In 2006, I made a trip to San Francisco on business and our meeting space was right next to a McDonald’s.   During lunch breaks I made the trek across the parking lot for a Ranch BLT Chicken sandwich, large fry and diet coke.  Hey, I’m a cheap date when it comes to business expenses.  However, I don’t know how my employer would have felt about me possibly winning a million dollars on their dime.    Not like they had anything to worry about anyway, but still.    My thinking at this time was that perhaps it was a regional issue.  Maybe the pieces were split up among regions.  Perhaps pieces like Park Place were distributed into the East while Boardwalk was sent into the West.  Maybe, by getting pieces from different parts of the country I could put together a winning set.   Unfortunately, in the age of the Internet, this is a highly unlikely scenario because communications about those pieces would flow back and forth creating opportunities for people to make deals with others holding the complementary pieces.   However, the deception is even greater than that.

Turns out, in case you didn’t know already, there are these “rare” pieces.  For each set of properties, including railroads, there is one piece that is considered rare, usually the last property in a set by alphabetical organization.    The exception is Boardwalk which is the last property in the arrangement of the game as well as the most expensive.    I haven’t seen all the statistics but my guess would be, that out of all the game pieces in circulation, Park Place has the highest number of appearances.  Why?  Because that entices people to keep playing. “Hey, if I have Park Place, then I only need to get Boardwalk to win.”   Since Boardwalk is a rare piece, you’ll never see it and at the end of the contest, you’ll be holding fifteen Park Places and an extra 15 pounds instead.

A few years later, I had not learned my lesson and continued to purchase unhealthy meals in hopes of finding the elusive rare pieces.  In fact, I escalated my obsession into keeping all the pieces and playing online.   The online version of the game allowed you to enter in the codes listed on the pieces for a roll of the dice.  As you moved around the virtual board, you picked up properties and other items.  The rolls always seem to put just to one side of the last piece needed to win, another carrot dangled.  In the end of that promotion year, I ended up winning a ringtone for my phone. Oooh, I’m a big winner, huh?  Turns out, it was a Sprint led promotion and I have Verizon wireless.    Bummer for me.  I ended up writing them to complain about it and in exchange for winning the incompatible ring tone, they gave me a free game download, which was a joke.  It was a flash game in which you had to slide blocks in certain directions and in a certain order so that you could move your cell phone shaped game piece along a straight line and out of the board through an opening.  I then learned that even the roll of the dice was not random.   The outcome of the dice rolls are scripted to randomly select moments when they could result in a player landing on a winning square.  There are even instances where the game would crash if you did complete a set of properties.  That’s all gone now as it is simply a random choice of cards.  No dice rolling or board advancement is involved.

So, over the last couple years I’ve given up on the whole scheme because every time I would go to the store, my choices for food with game pieces were limited to stuff I could care less about and half the time, that particular location would always be out of the containers holding game pieces.   That’s not to say that people aren’t figuring out ways to win or at least make money off the game.

There are blogs, message boards, forums, and a number of websites devoted to tips and tricks to winning.  In fact, there were even free game pieces by mail (along with a SASE, so that’s almost a dollar in postage) which could hold another 15 Park Places.  For awhile I had a bunch of Best Buy Bucks or discounts from Foot Locker if I spent a certain amount.  Truly, can anyone see the value added by wasting time on this game?   Instead of spending the money on McDonald’s, unless you naturally go there a lot, why not use that money to buy what you want at those stores.  Best Buy no longer gets involved and I didn’t even know Foot Locker was still around.

But beyond the actual purchasing of food to win money, there is a subset of people who are using the contest as a way to scam people into thinking they can win.   I will give humanity credit because they are getting somewhat smarter but a few years ago EBay was rife with scam auctions promising you an edge to winning.  First of all, there is the cheaply listed rare pieces list that gets emailed to you for the low price of $0.99.  In this scam, hucksters promise you a competitive edge to winning by identifying the rare pieces in the game and a few tricks and tips to winning more prizes.  First of all, the rare pieces are easy to list.  In fact, that information is available for free, everywhere.  All it takes is a simple search.

There are outrageous Buy It Now auctions listed for hundreds of thousands of dollars.  The item for sale is Park Place.  The piece that is everywhere and everyone always has was being sold for up to $500,000 because someone thought that “Hey, I have Park Place and could sell it for half the winnings because some idiot might believe that they can find Boardwalk on their own.”   That’s true dickery, there, and I know dickery.     LOL.

I guess the lesson to be learned here is that corporations that run contests like this are not looking to really pay out to a winner.  The quicker consumers learn that the better.   Yes, it’s fun to play and get caught up in the machine but realistically, understand this.  McDonald’s is out to make money, just like everyone else.  The contest has been set up to maximize revenue on their part by continually enticing people to play through promotion and marketing, i.e. the prevalence of Park Place in nearly every cup or container that has game pieces on them.   The online version is just as  controlled, or rigged if you wish to believe it, to only pay out a certain amount of low level prizes.  People, smarter than us, sit in boardrooms and come up with plans to maximize buy in and minimize pay outs.  Remember that, in most cases, all chances of winning are subject to randomness based upon odds that are in favor of the house, i.e. rare pieces.

To give you a different analogy, imagine that the instant win pieces on items are akin to prizes won at a “Guess Your Weight” game in an amusement park. You pay $2.00 and the attendant guesses something about you and gets it wrong. You walk away with a sombrero or blow up toy. You feel pretty proud of yourself for being able to fool the guesser. However, that item you are so proud of owning only costs a fraction of what you paid to get it. Go back and watch The Jerk. There’s a hilarious exchange between Steve Martin and a guest where explains what they can actually win. That’s the same philosophy here. A scale game at an amusement park is always going to come out ahead because the cost of any item is always going to be a small fraction of what the game costs.

In fact, the attendants aren’t there to be psychic or somehow intuitive. They don’t even have to get it right half the time. They are they to get you to play. They use their people skills to draw in a crowd of people to watch them. They use their people skills to get someone to play. When that person wins it makes others feel confident that they can win and that means more revenue coming in and low cost toys going out. Those items are then used as free publicity and promotion to pull other guests in when they see someone walking around with the prize they won at a scale. Put that in terms of McDonald’s Monopoly and you can see how the machine works and why it’s silly to imagine yourself with a million dollar payday. The online version used to advertise winners on screen while you were playing as a tool to get you to play. Who knows if these people really existed. It doesn’t matter, it’s the power of suggestion. They won, so I can win.

It’s just food for thought.

Here's some more food for thought.
How many Big Mac's do you have to eat to win X prize?
How are you faring at McDonald's Monopoly

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