How McDonald’s has helped nudge consumers to choose healthier drinks

Date : 10 December 2019

McDonald’s wanted to explore the opportunity to nudge its customers towards no sugar drinks, without conscious communication or removing choice.


As a population most of us are consuming too much sugar- nearly twice the recommended amount. Soft drinks contribute 21% of all free sugars in adult diets[i]. There is an opportunity to considerably reduce people’s sugar consumption by swapping into diet drinks- but how can this be done?

Behaviour science tells us that people do not like to be told what to do and information alone is unlikely to change behaviour. The theory of nudge focuses on changing environments with the intention of changing behaviour, without requiring people to make a conscious change.

Study overview

McDonald’s first introduced touchscreen menus back in 2015. This helped to speed up the ordering and payment process for customers but has also provided the opportunity to explore how these menus maybe able to influence customer choice.

McDonald’s wanted to see if it could encourage customers to choose healthier, diet or zero sugar drinks over the more popular full sugar versions.

The researchers identified two mechanisms that may affect the drink choices that customers make when selecting from the touchscreen menu. The first is defined as ‘reachability’. The idea behind this is that people will nearly always go for the option that is most accessible or ‘reachable.’ For example, on a buffet people are more likely to choose items that are placed on the edge or within easy reach. For the touchscreen menu this would be the middle options, it so happened that these options were already no sugar drinks.

The second mechanism is to do with people’s belief about how and why items are ordered or placed the way they are.  For example, researchers have demonstrated that people often prefer products that are in the middle of shop shelves. Eye tracking has consistently shown that middle items are looked at the most. In the case of McDonald’s touchscreen menus the researchers predicted that customers would expect the first drink listed to be the most popular drink. They also predicted that of the many customers that looked at the first drink listed, most would find it acceptable and not go on to consider an alternative choice.

For the intervention, the researchers therefore moved full sugar, regular Coca-Cola from the first position on the menu, to the last, replacing it with Coke Zero.


What happened?

Only restaurants with enough sales data could be included- this meant that 511 were selected for the final analysis.

The total number of drinks sold remained stable, but as predicted sales of regular, full sugar Coca-Cola decreased and sales of Coke Zero increased. There was also a small increase in the sales of Diet Coke but the other drinks were not affected. Although consumers were not asked for any feedback on the intervention, McDonald’s did not receive sufficient complaints to change the order of the drinks menu back again.



Learnings and opportunities

This study is an exciting real-life example of how environments can effectively change health-related behaviours. This study also noted that the intervention may also inform what is known as the ‘habit theory.’ It is reported that nearly half of food and drink behaviours are habitual- therefore initiatives such as this can help ‘disrupt’ and potentially change a former habit.

Nudge offers an exciting opportunity for changing behaviours to improve public health and can play an important part in helping consumers to make healthier choices.


This article has been summarised from a research paper:

Kelly Ann Schmidtke et al.,2019., Menu positions influence soft drink selection at touchscreen kiosks, Psychology and Marketing, Volume 36 (10), pp 891-970

[i] National Diet and Nutrition Survey, 2018. Results from years 7 and 8 (combined).

Hannah Pearse

Head of Nutrition and Scientific Affairs