For nearly three decades, the joys of board games and french fries have intersected every year for a brief, cheerful window. Since 1987, McDonald's has teamed up with the makers of the Monopoly board game to create McDonald's Monopoly, a promotion turns peeling stickers into a high-stakes game. By collecting playing pieces representing the different properties in a Monopoly game, people could win big.
In the years since its inception, McDonald's Monopoly, running through April 25 this year, has given out millions of dollars, thousands of prizes and even gone through an embezzlement scandal. Through the ups and downs, the sweepstakes — a corny word in and of itself — has become an icon of the fast food industry. The size and scale it operates on today will likely surprise even the most dedicated restaurant robber baron.
Roll to see who goes first: McDonald's Monopoly is an inarguable success, but looking at the numbers gives whole new perspective. When the promotion started in 1987, the fast food chain boasted $40 million available in cash and prizes. It wasn't a routine, annual contest at first. That didn't come until the '90s when the promotion evolved, according to McDonald's archivist Mike Bullington.
"In order to stay relevant to our customers, the brand has evolved the game over the years while keeping the concept the same," Bullington said in an email interview. "In 1997, McDonald's played off of the game's famous railroad properties and launched a cross-country train tour to deliver 25,000 new books to underserved children nationwide."
Other changes included switching up the branding (one year turned McDonald's Monopoly into McDonald's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire) and changing the prizes from just cash to more. This year, the promotion returns to its roots, offering only money and food.
The contest has grown impressively since its $40 million beginning. Over the past decade, according to a McDonald's spokesperson, $1 billion of cash and prizes have been available to win. Additionally, according to Bullington, in 2016 McDonald's is "giving away more individual cash prizes than any game in the last 10 years."
Perhaps most remarkable thing about McDonald's Monopoly is simply the number of playing pieces printed every year. The number doesn't follow any "consistent growth rate," Bullington explained, but it's nonetheless huge: McDonald's printed 500 million Monopoly playing pieces. That's just for this year.
"If you were to lay the pieces end-to-end, they would stretch from New York to Sydney," Bullington added.
Do not pass go; do not collect $200 dollars. McDonald's Monopoly has not been without its bouts of controversy. The FBI charged a group of people with "rigging" the game during the late '90s to win all the prizes. The mail fraud conspiracy resulted in one group of people winning most of the rewards, including a veritable fleet of cars. Two years later, McDonald's had to settle a suit tangentially related to the fraud.
Despite controversy, slowing overall sales and the mere fact of being a paper sweepstakes in a time where more focus is going online, the contest is still thriving. McDonald's Monopoly is tantamount to an institution — one that can draw even the devout non-fans back to its golden arch-emblazoned doors.