How Artificial Scarcity Turned the McRib Into an Icon

For the first time in eight years, McDonald’s will release the McRib on a national scale. The sandwich has been cycled in and out of the restaurants for nearly four decades now. It’s gotten to the point where the McRib has a bit of a cult following, and every time it pops up on menus people gobble up the sandwich.

Then, it’s gone. It seems McDonald’s releases the McRib only to pull it from the menu quickly after its arrival. If history tells us anything, the McRib really isn’t that good, nor is it inherently popular.

The first time it left the menu, it wasn’t a marketing tactic, nor was it due to a supply shortage. It was due to poor sales, because McDonald’s really isn’t a place to buy ribs. If the demand was there, McDonald’s could get the pork supply to keep the McRib on the menu. The scarcity is an intentional tactic to have a sandwich that’s hard to find.

The McRib isn’t just a sandwich to McDonald’s. It’s a form a publicity and their wild card marketing scheme. By limiting its availability, McDonald’s has turned low demand into a big buzz. It’s not a strategy unique to McDonald’s, but the restaurant has made it work time and time again.

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The Initial Failure of the McRib

The McRib debuted in 1981 but was released nationwide in 1982. However, their history really begins in 1979 with the release of another product. This was when McDonalds introduced the Chicken McNugget, and it was a huge hit. McNuggets sold so well that McDonald’s couldn’t keep up with the demand, so they wanted customers to feed their hunger with another McDelicacy.

Chicken was off limits, and beef was already a staple of the McDonald’s menu. So, McDonald’s chef Rene Arend drew inspiration from southern barbecue. Thus, the McRib was born to mimic the flavor of barbecue pulled pork.

When people are in the mood for southern barbecue, their mind doesn’t go to McDonald’s. While there was some initial interest, it wasn’t enough to make the sandwich a staple on the menu. After all, it’s called the McRib but you’d be lucky if you even ate any rib meat. It’s mostly pork shoulder shredded and pressed to look like a rack of ribs. This makes eating the sandwich much more convenient for consumers, but it doesn’t make the sandwich any more appealing.

In 1985, the sandwich was pulled from menus nationwide. This was more of a hiatus than anything else. By 1989 the sandwich would start to make its reappearance, but never found a home on menus.

The McRib’s Rerelease, Re-rerelease & Re-re-release

Once McDonald’s took the McRib off its menu they began to recognize some customers missed the sandwich. The first time around that demand wasn’t strong enough to sustain it as a full-time fixture, but clearly some people wanted their McRibs. So customers started seeing the sandwich appear on random occasions.

After it’s reappearance in 1989, the McRib would make another appearance in 1994 to promote the Flintstone’s Movie. Likely this is because the “ribs” slightly resemble the ribs seen in the Flintstone’s theme song.

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Typically the McRib will be rereleased in isolated markets. There’s a whole site dedicated to reporting McRib sightings to people can plan an impromptu roadtrip to get a pork sandwich. Unless you’re willing to drive hours, the limitations result in people going years without access to the sandwich. We seldom see nationwide releases like we did in 2012 or will see Dec. 2020.

Why does McDoanld’s do this? Scarcity. They want customers to be excited when they see the McRib available, but history tells us the sandwich is quite boring when it’s a fixture of menu. Every time McDonald’s rereleases the McRib there’s huge promotion.

The law of scarcity states people will make purchases when items are in short supply and there’s urgency. All of those advertisements saying the McRib is back for a “limited time” are designed to make the purchase seem more urgent. If you don’t try it now, you’re going to miss out.

If you think about it, this is contrary to other restaurants with their limited-time offers. Think pumpkin spice, which is always a big hit. Places like Starbucks will start offering their pumpkin flavored treats in August and keep them until November. The urgency to buy those items should be decreasing because their windows of availability are increasing.

The McRib plays by its own rules, and those rule say an eight year gap is perfectly fine.

Why is the McRib Back in 2020?

When the McRib returns in 2020, consumers won’t be the only ones excited. McDonald’s is the one who is desperate for customers. Like many retail establishments, sales are down at McDonald’s due to limited foot traffic.

This is why McDonald’s has an item like the McRib. It creates an artificial fast food event with an artificial sense of scarcity. American McDonald’s could have a McRib all the time if the company wanted. It’s not a supply issue, as Germany has a McRib as a permanent menu item. It’s a matter of making the sandwich into an event.

Photo via David Paul Morris/ Getty Images

The return of the McRib is a holiday in the world of McDonald’s. During a year when many people had limited access to speciality foods, a McRib may be the best form of southern barbecue some people can get. Add in McDonald’s need for customers, and the decision seems clear. This is the time to rerelease the McRib… again.

In the USA, the McRib is more of a joke than anything else, but it’s a joke we pay attention to. It’s part of our pop culture, being mentioned in movies like Deadpool 2 and parodied in The Simpsons. People know what the sandwich is, even if they don’t want to eat it. McDonald’s knew what they were doing, after all. Pressing the patties to look like a rack of ribs, despite the lack of bones, was going to raise a few eyebrows. They did it anyway, and integrity of the McRib is still questioned decades later.

Will the McRib Become a Permanent Option?

On December 2nd, 2020, many people will eat the McRib of the first time. It will earn itself many new fans and haters, but it won’t be around for long. The announcement of the 2020 McRib release already advertises it as “limited time.” Don’t expect it to stick around for long.

After the McRib leaves the menu, it’s unlikely to see another national release for years. Despite the fact that McDonald’s has a Shamrock Shake, the McRib is their four leaf clover. Occasionally it will pop up in limited quantities at McDonalds locations. Then it will leave, only returning when stores need a boost or McDonald’s wants to run a crazy promotion.

By making the McRib scarce, it becomes a talking point. Many people know of the McRib, but they probably don’t really remember what it tastes like. It’s been on the menu so infrequently that people will retry it upon rerelease because they can’t remember how much it sucked the first time they ate it. Or they’ll try it for the first time because so many people are talking about. Regardless of which camp you fall into, it’s possible that 2020 will be your only chance to try the McRib for the next half a decade. Do you really want to miss out on this exclusive experience?

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