The True, Steamy Story of the Egg McMuffin

Hockey puck breakfast turns 40

Headshot of Robert Klara

In December 1971, Ray Kroc paid a visit to a McDonald’s restaurant owned by Herb Peterson. The fast-food chain’s president had learned that the franchisee had cooked up something that would solve a problem that had confounded Kroc for years: McDonald’s did no breakfast business. Kroc sat down, and Peterson served him what looked like a hockey puck: a poached egg with a slice of cheese and Canadian bacon on a toasted English muffin. Kroc ate one sandwich—and then a second.

The Egg McMuffin turns 40 years old this year, and with breakfast now making up 25 percent of McDonald’s sales, this egg on a bun is a cornerstone of the chain’s menu—so critical to the $12.5 billion breakfast market that McDonald’s is considering serving the Egg McMuffin all day.

So it’s probably no surprise that the chain is still advertising the sandwich—and using an approach that’s compositionally similar to one it used in the 1970s when the McMuffin was new. To wit: a nice big shot of the food, big play for the word “morning” and some feel-good copy about great taste and freshness, etc. According to Prof. Jordan LeBel, who teaches food marketing at Montreal’s Concordia University, while advertising for casual-dining chains has grown more sophisticated—graduating to messages about the emotional connections people make when they go out to eat—fast-food marketing seems stuck in a time warp. “It’s still all about showing what’s big and juicy,” LeBel said. “Fast-food chains keep hitting the sensory and the visceral. They sort of have to. There’s intense competition.”

He’s not kidding. Even Chick-fil-A is serving up a Chicken Egg and Cheese Bagel these days. Yet for as similar as these ads may look, they’re also a gauge of how much American appetites have changed. In 1979, the brand’s overriding problem was simply turning consumers onto the idea of visiting a burger chain in the morning. “McDonald’s wanted to showcase the product in the ad—and make it look as mouthwatering as possible,” LeBel said.

Today, America’s raging obesity epidemic and worries over convenience foods’ oft-dubious ingredients have forced this 2013 ad to leap over a higher bar. Indeed, the breakfast item before us is the Egg White Delight McMuffin, a pale and anemic cousin to the zesty, cholesterol-laden 1970s original. The taxicab-yellow slice of American cheese has been kicked off the bun, too. And what’s with those coupons? Competition from the so-called “fast casual” chains like Panera Bread has bitten off some of McDonald’s market share, necessitating traffic-builder gimmicks like these. “They’re trying to do a lot of things in this cluttered ad,” LeBel lamented. “You can barely see the product.”

Which is too bad, really. Cutting the fat and calorie count is a noble goal, of course, but as Ray Kroc himself attested, that old Egg McMuffin was one hell of a tasty sandwich.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.