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We always want what we can't have

March 5, 2013

By Jennifer Joyner

What I'm about to say has the potential to incite controversy. Because of this, I have kept my opinion on this subject to myself for the most part, only telling those closest to me. But now, I think I'm equipped to handle any backlash and am ready to admit it in public. 
I don't think the McRib sandwich is that great … In fact, to me, it's kind of gross. 
From what I've heard, this is a very unpopular stance, but I just can't help it.
What's the draw of the McRib? It's a compressed pork patty with barbecue sauce, pickles and onions on a bun. It reminds me of sandwiches we used to be served in elementary school. It could easily be recreated by purchasing a boneless pork rib shaped patty and microwaving it. There is nothing intrinsically special about the McRib, and yet every time McDonald's announces the product will be available for a window of time, everyone I know goes crazy over it. There is even a McRib locator map by kleincast.com.
All McDonald's has to do is launch an ad campaign declaring "The McRib is back!" and, as if part of some Pavlovian experiment, people turn up in droves. The reason for this is simple. The guys at McDonald's are clued in to an elemental truth: People want what they can't have, so if they think something will only be available for short time, that makes them want it more.  
So, they offer the McRib for "a limited time" and then they take it away again, knowing the time the sandwich is absent from the menu will heighten the public's appreciation for it. (It just so happens the availability of the McRib also coincides with low pork prices.) 
McDonald's is not the only company to capitalize on this aspect of human nature. Take, for example, the use of the "Disney Vault," which refers to the company's practice of periodically holding DVD sales of certain Disney films for an indefinite time. As a child, I remember watching a commercial for "Sleeping Beauty" where the announcer urged us to hurry and purchase the film, before it was to "go back in the Disney Vault."
I wondered why they were doing this. Were the Disney executives afraid they were going to run out of "Sleeping Beauty" movies? Of course not. And McDonald's does not take away the McRib because of some nationwide McRib shortage.
It's a gimmick. And a cheap one, at that. But it works. The Wall Street Journal credits the McRib sandwich as one of the reasons the restaurant fared well through rough economic times. 
Most people are aware it's a gimmick, but we are still drawn to anything that is said to be "limited edition." I guess the reason for this is the perceived value of something increases when it is in short supply. We go into greedy, hoarding mode.
And it's fun to be a part of something. People need to feel connected to others and a shared interest in pork sandwiches might do that. At least it's something to talk about. And the McRib campaign is so over the top, I think people feel like they're in on the joke with the McRib and are just playing along.
To quote Mark Twain: "There is a charm about the forbidden that makes it unspeakably desirable.

Jennifer Joyner is a reporter at The Saline Courier. She is available at jjoyner@bentoncourier.com.

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