McChampagne Wishes and McCaviar Dreams — Lucky Peach 14, Obsession Issue. February 2015

This piece — on the curious appeal of 1990's fast-food promotions and sweepstakes/my search for a McDonald's Monopoly millionaire — is sadly only available in its entirety in the print issue. But you can read an excerpt below...


McChampagne Wishes and McCaviar Dreams Excerpt:

In the fall of 1990, a guardian angel came to Stephanie Linden in the form of a Big Mac. The twenty-five-year-old mother of two hadn’t considered herself much of a McDonald’s enthusiast before this fateful evening in Ephrata, Washington. But after an exhaustive day at her job arranging subsidiary payments from the USDA to local farmers, she saw the Golden Arches illuminated on Basin Street and veered toward the drive-through, dinner’s dilemma now solved. With two Big Mac Extra Value Meals and two Happy Meals nestled on the passenger’s seat of her Pontiac Bonneville, she headed for home.

Stephanie’s visit to McDonald’s happened to take place during the restaurant’s feverishly popular Monopoly sweepstakes, a promotional campaign inspired by the iconic Parker Brothers board game. McDonald’s Monopoly works like this: annually, for four-week spans, small peel- off stamp “game pieces” are affixed to the packages of select McDonald’s menu items. Game pieces offer one of three opportunities: an Instant Win prize, an Instant Win free-food coupon, or a color-coded Monopoly property. Street pieces like Mediterranean Avenue or B&O Railroad correspond to Chiclet-sized rectangular spaces on the McDonald’s Monopoly board, which resembles the original game’s layout, shrunken down to a foldable piece of paper, available at participating McDonald’s locations. Just as in the board game, the idea is to collect all the game pieces for a property set (magenta St. Charles Place with Virginia and States Avenues, for example, or all four Railroads). Do so with McDonald’s Monopoly, and you can redeem a handsome prize (a paid vacation to Disney World or a year supply of free Shell gas).

At the Linden dinner table, Stephanie peeled back the game pieces affixed to her Big Mac’s packaging. The stamps, unzipped from their tiny perforated edges, revealed the Loch Ness Monster of game pieces: the ultra-rare blue Boardwalk, paired conveniently with its mate, Park Place—the winning combination for a $1 million jackpot.

Stephanie, now fifty, is rather conservative in her retelling of the story. I got in touch with her through the online forum Reddit.4 Stephanie’s son, who identifies himself by the username “beer_engineer,” chimed in about his mother’s win on a McDonald’s Monopoly conversation thread back in 2012. After a month of sparse correspondence, beer_engineer connected me to his mother, but with this disclaimer: “Please respect that [she] is pretty uncomfortable being public about anything, and that she’s stepping out of her comfort zone even being anonymous.” Stephanie agreed to speak with me, but strictly via text message.

“What was it like to peel off and see you were an Instant Winner?” I asked.

“They made u call a phone # n first I was scared cuz they asked personal questions but then

I called back n that’s when they told me how much I was in disbelief,” Stephanie texted. The McDonald’s winners hotline operator exclaimed, “You’ve won a million dollars!” And just like that, Stephanie Linden became a McMillionaire.

Her only splurge purchases were for a tri-level, four-bedroom, three-bathroom home on an acre of land. She upgraded her Pontiac Bonneville to a new 1992 model, customized with tinted windows, stereo system, and leather seating. She continued working her job as an administrative assistant for a year and a half until she conceived her third child, and divorced in 1993. “Yes, my life changed, but I never let it get out of control,” she wrote.

Stephanie says the Monopoly promotion hadn’t initially influenced her decision to visit McDonald’s that fateful night. But she, like any American with a television set in the eighties and nineties, had seen the barrage of Monopoly commercials featured on nearly every channel, trumpeting, “Your luck’s about to change!” “Do not pass go! Go directly to McDonald’s!” and “Better chances of winning instantly too!”

The Monopoly promotion—and others like it—flourished in the nineties, because of customers far more passionate for the game than Stephanie. Much of the hysteria that fueled the fast food campaigns of that time capitalized on the popularity of collectibles. In the case of Monopoly, customers were drawn to the simple satisfaction of accumulating game pieces and filling their game boards. Take Robert Brunner of Champaign, Illinois: in 1994, Brunner started to compile lists documenting the exact type and number of Monopoly stamps he acquired during each year’s sweepstakes. For more than a decade, he posted every season’s collection on his website, which is in and of itself a relic of the nineties, with links to his Cyber-resume and Some Hale-Bopp slides. Brunner had been studying parallel and high-performance programming at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, for graduate school. He dined at the on-campus McDonald’s location three to four times a week throughout each Monopoly promotional period, strategically opting for meals that maximized his game pieces per order. The December 1995 entry reveals his highest stamp total, fifty-two, with some properties appearing in marked repetition like orange St. James Place (7) or green Pacific Avenue (8). Brunner even catalogues his Instant Win prizes: “Big Mac or Egg McMuffin (3) (1 eaten.)” At the top of each page, Brunner disclaims: “I DO NOT CARE TO TRADE PIECES. The time and postage aren’t worth it.” Winning big hadn’t been his motivation—a convenience, in the end, considering that despite collecting nearly 300 game pieces, Brunner, like most, never won anything beyond free food. “The odds of winning any lottery aren’t very good,” Brunner told me. “But if you’re gonna order food anyway, you might as well win some free french fries and pay a little less next time.” To him, “it was all just for fun.”