“McMillions” and McMemories

McDonald's pins!

Just a few of the souvenirs we still have from our years with the Golden Arches. All of these are from Anne’s old pin collection.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: our family doesn’t subscribe to HBO, but from time to time our cable provider will offer free preview weekends that let us watch all we can within 72 hours that are meant to entice us to add it to our already overstuffed lineup. Instead we save up our HBO watch-lists, pace back and forth waiting for those rare weekends, then see how much we can speed through whenever we’re granted the opportunity. It’s a bit like composing lunches entirely from free samples handed out at the grocery, but in the proper frame of mind, satisfaction can be found in limited quantities.

At least, all that had been our usual approach. Among the more recent developments in the interim normal is both Hulu and our cable provider are now offering access to the HBO libraries for a nonspecific “limited time”, presumably with an end date their corporate overlords can shift back and forth as the winds change. Until then, we plan to see what we can work in while we’re busy catching up on other watch-list materials.

Naturally for us, priority #1 was a recent show that brought back memories of our old jobs.

Aired this past February and March, the six-hour documentary miniseries McMillions is an exhaustive, sometimes exhausting deep dive into a complex, years-long conspiracy that saw the largest prizes in McDonald’s Monopoly promotions handed off to relatives or sold to adjacent acquaintances rather than fairly won by random customers as the giggly god Grimace intended. Instead of telling the story from the beginning, the filmmakers pick up from the viewpoint of the FBI agents who first caught the case via an anonymous tipster who dropped a few names and whose info at first was treated as a crank call and relegated to a lone Post-It reminder hanging from a monitor like so many others.

Enter one particularly excitable FBI hotshot, Agent Doug Mathews — bursting with initiative, persistence, creative problem-solving skills, and a love of costumes, storytelling, and cameras. Without his dogged exuberance and his preoccupation with that curious Post-It, there would’ve been no investigation, and even if there had been one without him, there definitely wouldn’t have been this show. Mathews is a lively interviewee, prone to sharing very nearly every single detail that comes to mind, building suspense, beating around the bush, but eventually getting to another eyebrow-raising punchline. Vulture has already accurately exalted Special Agent Doug as the best part of the show while also agreeing with my suspicions about his culpability in the FBI’s biggest error in the case — “the faxing incident”, whose key shenanigan sounded like something a Brooklyn Nine-Nine character would do.

Thus does Agent Mathews become the hub around which all the other real-life characters revolve. There’s the original perpetrator, Jerome Jacobson, a security chief with the marketing firm that ran every Monopoly promotion for McDonald’s and assembled the means to purloin the most prosperous among the prizewinning properties. The friends and relatives who became his first recipients of million-dollar pieces and other prizes, who could only be recruited if their last names were different to avoid easy suspicion. The friends and relatives of those friends and relatives who were later invited to join the fun — some more ignorant than others about the fraud involved, some who would lose their moral compasses as things began to spiral out of control. The other Feds and prosecutors who had their misgivings about Mathews but nonetheless collaborated as one large network to take down the entire ring.

Then the filmmakers begin interviewing relatives of the principals who had nothing to do with any of this, who were tiny children when all this was happening, whose relevance is far from essential. While the case as a whole is packed with riveting details, it’s not nonstop riveting. Multiple participants are allowed to rhapsodize at length, seemingly unedited as if we’re watching extended versions from the DVD set’s bonus disc. Some of these folks were nice people who should be thanked for coming clean and sharing what they know, but a few of them should’ve been reduced to select soundbites. Not everyone can be Special Agent Doug.

Anne and I got the gist from The Daily Beast’s feature-length recount of the fascinating, sordid events two years ago, which has been recently updated and had a paywall slammed in front of it that didn’t used to be there. (New York Times digital subscribers like me can check out their truncated version.) When I first came across that article, it became a rare moment of me then telling Anne, “You have to read this.” The FBI investigation had begun in 2001, two years after Anne left and one year before I followed her lead. We had nary an inkling of this entire mess and its absurd intricacies until the Beast’s summation told us what we’d missed. Virtually all the misdeeds occurred far away from us in the southeastern U.S., and of course involved at least one “Florida Man”.

As you might guess from Anne’s pin collection in our lead photo, McDonald’s ran the Monopoly game a few times during our tenures. We remember the uptick in business every time, the influx of customers suddenly craving every food or drink we sold that came with free game pieces attached. The stores in our franchise never had any major winners that I can recall, but that was predictable, as was the game’s distribution design. If you ate at McDonald’s three times a day all throughout the promotion while supplies lasted, and lived to tell the tale with less nausea than Morgan Spurlock did, after a while you’d realize your ever-growing hoard of Monopoly game pieces was missing exactly one property from every single color. Every property set had one piece that was next to impossible to find — extremely short-packed like the rarest, coolest action figure variants that collectors fight over. I wouldn’t call it rigged exactly, but to me it had the feel of a large-scale carnival game. Winners could happen, but they weren’t meant to happen daily.

Some folks did come to realize that, but kept on questing and eating with us anyway. The instant prizes — free cheeseburger, free fry, free breakfast sandwich, whatever — were sometimes generously generated and had far better odds of showing up on the front of a hash brown bag than, say, a new car. Seeding those millions of game pieces with just enough flecks of positive reinforcement was ample incentive for customers to keep coming back for more.

Unfortunately it was also incentive for lower-tier McDonald’s employees to keep trying their luck at it. Teens, dropouts, and other bored coworkers would often linger in the storeroom on break when managers weren’t around, grab a handful of packaging, begin yanking off the game pieces, then leave behind their piles of losers. Not only was this technically stealing, but now we were left with stacks of ruined cups, bags, and wrappers that we couldn’t use and had to throw out. Imagine a customer ordering an Extra Value Meal only to have their sandwich box, fry carton, and cup bearing holes where the Monopoly pieces had been stripped off. Total non-starter. Quite a bit of paper goods were wasted behind the counter.

The most aggravating bit: if those crew members had won anything worthwhile, redemption would’ve been out of the question. The official rules forbade current employees from entering. For common prizes such as the free foods, hypothetically a winning employee could use them at other stores where nobody would recognize them…but honestly, what lucid fast-food worker wants to spend their downtime eating more work-food made elsewhere? And if, against all insurmountable odds, they somehow had stumbled into one of the high-end magical golden-ticket wins, they wouldn’t have been able to claim it and get rich…unless they wanted to pass it on to a friend or relative, try pulling a Jerome Jacobson, and end up getting pantsed by Special Agent Doug.

Thankfully for those of us who weren’t fans of the process, eventually our stores would run out of game pieces and return to selling food in plain, non-gamey packaging. Customers would mutiny and/or quietly flee. Sales would return to their previous lower levels, just like when comic shop owners mourn their profit margins whenever a Marvel or DC crossover ends. Then we’d have to put things on sale or push a terrible new sandwich or bring back the McRib or run some other promotion until the next game came along and enthralled millions. There was always a next game, and another generation of food-gamers ready for a taste.

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