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Consumers Expose Misleading Advertising

Following a barrage of complaints nation-wide, a misleading advert by McDonald’s has been exposed in the national press.

A Misleading Advert

In early 2002, McDonald’s launched a poster advertising campaign claiming that there were "40,312 Possible Combinations" of its 8 McChoice menu items. This is mathematically a nonsense. There are, in fact, only 256 possible combinations of 8 items (including ordering none of these). 

McDonald’s had used the wrong mathematical method to calculate the number of choices. What – in fact – McDonald’s was advertising was the order of choices, for example, that people might ask for "a coke and fries" or "fries and a coke". But these are not ‘possible combinations’ (i.e. different choices) as stated in the advert. 

For a more detailed but user-friendly explanation of why 40,312 is wrong and 256 is correct, see the website

The Complaints Roll In

The advert’s false claim was exposed in an article in the Guardian. As a result, over 150 people nation-wide complained to the advertising regulator, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The advertising industry is self-regulating in that the ASA are funded by the industry. It is the ASA’s job to ensure that non-broadcast adverts are Legal, Decent, Honest and Truthful and do not infringe their advertising codes of practice. These codes are published on the ASA’s website at

The vast majority of consumer complaints received by the ASA, about any given advert, tend to be from a handful of people at most. To poll over 150 complaints from consumers is unusual, and shows the strength of feeling against this advert. 

The ASA – the Advertiser’s Friend

However, undeterred by the fact that many consumers had spotted the false claim and misleading nature of the advertisement – the ASA found in favour of McDonald’s, and in May 2002 delivered an adjudication which did not uphold the complaints. 

The ASA did not seem to require McDonald’s to explain its use of the wrong mathematical method, but instead allowed the company to change its mind about its method of calculation. McDonald’s claimed that it had under-stated the number of combinations because there were actually 16 McChoice items including flavour variants, and therefore the number of combinations was actually 65,535. 

The ASA ignored the fact that the advert showed only 8 items and also that the company had used the wrong mathematical method in the first place. In other words, it allowed McDonald’s to wriggle out of a complaint that should have been upheld! 

A Consumer Appeals

One consumer was so incensed by the ruling, and the fact that the ASA was, at best, mathematically incapable of judging the complaint or that it was knowingly siding with an advertiser who was in the wrong – that she applied for an independent review of the decision. Information on the ASA’s website indicates that only around one-third of requests for a review are accepted, and only a further one-third of these results in a change to the original adjudication. 

This is unsurprising. The independent reviewer doesn’t review the decisions at all. All he does is consider the request and decide whether the ruling should be looked at again. If he does, the request is referred back to the ASA’s Council – the people who made the decision in the first place. No wonder so few rulings ever get changed! 

Not only that, but industry members are more likely to be successful than consumers, with only 14% of consumer requests (compared to 38% from industry) being successful in securing a review, and that only 8% of these 14% lead to a change in the original adjudication (including re-wording, which isn’t worth the paper it’s written on). This is clearly a system designed by industry for industry – and does very little to provide a regulatory service on behalf of consumers. 

The Decision is Reviewed

The appeal case that the consumer put forward to the independent reviewer explains why the advert was mathematically incorrect, the ways in which the original adjudication was flawed and also highlights the advertising codes of practice that were infringed. This case was also accompanied by a supporting statement from a senior mathematician at one of the country’s top universities. 

However, the ASA was clearly undeterred by this weight of evidence and expert opinion in its determination to side with McDonald’s. It ruled not to uphold the appeal but merely to re-word its original adjudication. This included a couple of spectacular own goals: 

"The advertisers said they were aware that some people might consider a double cheeseburger and milkshake to be the same permutation as a milkshake and double cheeseburger but they believed that each permutation could be considered a different eating experience." 

"…that the advertisers’ intention was simply to indicate the large number of available choices and [the ASA] considered that the number quoted in the advertisement [40,312] was not so necessarily exaggerated [256 is the correct number] as to be misleading." 

How’s that for desperation to side with an advertiser! 

The full lunacy of this ruling can be viewed on the ASA's website and reproduced here

Both the ASA and McDonald’s were deservedly humiliated about this in the Guardian.

The McLibel trial has already found that McDonald’s advertising exploits children. 

Our story here exposes not only McDonald’s continuing attempts to mislead the public through its advertising, but also the failure of the regulators (the ASA) to take action against its pals in the advertising industry – even though the advert was misleading and clearly contravened at least two codes of advertising practice. 

What this campaign has achieved:

  • National exposure of both a misleading advert and the failure of the regulator to take appropriate action.
  • The large number of complaints signals to McDonald’s that the public aren’t fooled by and aren’t willing to put up with its misleading advertising.
  • If McDonald’s runs this advert again, there’s no reason why consumers should not bombard the ASA with complaints again, using the mathematical and advertising codes arguments contained in this story. The ASA will claim that it has already been adjudicated – but given that the adjudication is factually wrong – consumers can make their views known.
    Exposure of the flaws in the ASA’s review process. A classic demonstration of why the advertising industry should not be trusted to self-regulate.