The Dark History of Fast-food Promotions

Yesterday’s Oprah-KFC disaster will likely appear as a case study in an upcoming marketing textbook, but it’s not like this hasn’t happened before. Unhappy customers, ousted executives, and PR nightmares are strewn throughout the history of fast-food promotions like so many Sunday inserts. Most references we found were recent, so it’s easy to blame Internet ubiquity. Combine that with the power of Oprah, and KFC never stood a chance.

Summer 2003: Red Lobster’s $22.99 “Endless Crab” gambit cost the company president her job after the seafood chain molted big money. “It wasn’t the second helping, it was the third that hurt,” chief executive Joe Lee explained. “And the fourth.” [USAT]

August 2006: Starbucks issued free-iced-coffee coupons to employees on August 23 and encouraged them to forward the e-mail to friends and family. The recipients did, with enthusiasm. By Tuesday, August 29, Starbucks refused to honor the coupons. [MSN Money via EJC]

January 2009: Carl’s Jr. texts contest winners a code that enables them to print a free-burger coupon from the L.A. Lakers website. The promotion is canceled after only 50 redemptions, a move that one blogger attributed to the company noticing “that the limited-circulation coupon code was in fact making the rounds of the many, many Web sites focused on aggregating coupon deals and free stuff.” [Big Fat Marketing Blog]

February 2009: Quiznos corporate starts a “Million Free Subs” promotion, but actual Quiznos franchises say they can’t afford to give out free sandwiches. Individual stores all over the country refuse to honor the coupon, and corporate takes down the related website,, after three days, asserting that all the sandwiches had been claimed. [Marketing Daily]

March 2009: Domino’s programs a free-pizza code (“BAILOUT”) into its website without actually green-lighting the promotion. The company gives away 11,000 pizzas before realizing the error; offers another code (SWEET) to placate customers with free Cinna Stix. [Consumerist]

Earlier: Oprah Gives Away Free Chicken, Sparking Wonderful Highs and Terrible Lows

The Dark History of Fast-food Promotions