20 Sneaky Tricks Fast Food Chains Use To Keep You Coming Back For More

You’d think we know better than to eat fast food – given all the attention surrounding its health and nutritional aspects. Yet we continue to crave the taste of chicken nuggets and French fries. But if you’ve ever fallen prey to the urge for fast food, then it’s likely because these companies know the right moves to keep you coming back. So, let’s explore together 20 ways that these chains make it impossible to say no.

20. They use specific colors to make you hungry

Have you ever noticed how fast food chains have certain colors in their logo? Think of McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Burger King: they all share the same shades of red and yellow. Well, this isn’t some random coincidence or a case of lazy graphic design. It’s actually a concerted effort to get customers into their restaurants.

Both red and yellow subconsciously make us feel positive emotions such as desire and satisfaction, according to Insider. And this combo – dubbed the “Ketchup and Mustard Theory” in marketing – can easily trick you into buying a meal. But these aren’t the only colors chains employ. Subway, for example, uses green in its logo because of the hue’s association with freshly grown produce.

19. They overload your senses with olfactory delicacies

Picture the scene: it’s lunchtime and you’re on your way to get a healthy lunch. Suddenly, you pass a fast food place and the smell of fries is too much to turn down. Sound familiar? If so, then you’ve fallen prey to one of the oldest tricks in the fast food book – entice the nose before tempting the stomach.

The Cake website explained in 2019, “Smell and taste are closely linked because flavor engages them both.” Because of this, fast food chains will reportedly often beef up the natural aroma of their restaurants. This includes using diffusing machines to inject the atmosphere with synthetic odors which smell like their products.


18. A great soundtrack can you make you want to eat more

What would you think if we told you that sound affects your dining habits? Yep, music can determine your likelihood of staying at a certain place. And this influences the type of music restaurants play front of house, according to MailOnline. For example, soft and smooth music usually keep diners in their seats longer, while faster, heavier tunes will likely drive them away.

And yet, the style of music alone doesn’t just influence where we eat. According to a 2018 study published in the Journal of Academy of Marketing Sciences, volume can also determine what we’re likely to eat as well. To put it simply, the higher the decibels, the more stressed and excited you become. Interestingly, this makes you more inclined to order calorific meals when eating out.


17. They put restaurants on every block so you can’t control your urges

It seems like every street corner has a fast food restaurant on it these days. Every so often, you’ll even come across a block that has two stores of the same chain! This overrepresentation of outlets may initially seem like the product of unreasonably high supply and demand. Look closer, though, and the reality becomes a lot more sinister.

In truth, this overabundance of restaurants is really an attempt to trick our minds into craving fast food, Psychology Today argues. Within our brains, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for impulse control. And it can be easily silenced with enough hits of dopamine, which the thought of food can trigger. As a result, our resistance to fast food weakens further as it becomes more available.


16. Meal deals make you buy more than you actually need

As savvy consumers, we all value a deal that helps us save money. And that’s the reason why we can’t help buying meal deals whenever the opportunity arises. Let’s face it, why should you settle for just a burger when you can also have soda and fries for mere pennies more?

The reason is that you may not actually need to eat anything else! Take a Big Mac, for example. According to CNBC, it has 550 calories and could be enough on its own to satisfy your hunger. But even though sides and a drink can almost triple that amount of calories, our brains are hardwired to put more importance on slim wallets than slim waists.


15. They set the lighting to influence how fast you eat

Of course, getting people to visit a restaurant isn’t just a case of having the best food in town. And many will argue that a restaurant’s success also rests on the lighting of the interiors. While neither McDonald’s nor Arby’s are likely to get any Michelin stars anytime soon, they still pay close attention to their outlet’s ambiance.

Fast food companies have a slightly different approach to lighting than, say, Nobu. Instead of the softer variants found in upscale restaurants, places like McDonald’s and Burger King have fluorescent lighting. The harsher aspect of this ambience can actually quicken the rate of someone’s consumption, according to the National Library of Medicine. As a result, this makes them feel less full and more eager to return to the counter for seconds.


14. They give you extra big portions to make you feel like a special customer

We all appreciate a business where the servers know your name. That’s why many of us keep going to the same bars and restaurants. But while the staff of a local bar or eatery can know their customers by heart, larger corporations don’t have that luxury. Instead, they employ a few sneaky tricks.

Take the burger chain Five Guys, for example. If you’ve eaten there before, you’re probably thinking about their massive portions of fries that spill out of the container. Even though this size is standard throughout all of its restaurants, it still feels like the servers are giving you special treatment. And this implied generosity could bring you back on return journeys.


13. They try to break your dining routines so you cough up more money

As creatures of habit, we often go into fast food restaurants already knowing what we want to eat. But chains don’t like it when customers repeatedly stick to the same meal – especially if that meal has a low price tag. So in order to break their clientele’s routines, companies rely on a little thing called decision anchoring.

According to behavioraleconomics.com, decision anchoring involves making a customer base their purchasing choices on the first thing they encounter in the store. You see, research has shown that what we usually end up buying is often our initial option. And with that in mind, chains will load their outlets’ entrances with images of their most expensive items to subtly sway our eventual purchase.


12. They use bigger packaging to increase your appetite

The KFC bargain bucket is as iconic a piece of packaging as the Coca-Cola bottle or a Campbell’s soup can. But behind its eye-catching design lies some sly psychology that makes consumers eat more. In essence, large food containers like the bucket trick diners into eating several meals worth of food in one sitting.

How this works can be attributed to the way we mentally allocate portions based on their packaging. As shown in a 2004 paper by the University of Illinois’ Brian Wansink, there exists “a psychological barrier [that] may prevent individuals from opening another item if they have already opened and eaten several of them.” So, fast food chains put several portions in one container to counteract any obstacle.


11. Making their products look like the Mona Lisa

Most of us at some point have experienced disappointment when an item we order doesn’t look quite like it did on the menu. That’s because when it comes to advertising, fast food chains prefer portraying perfection as opposed to reality. To help this, food photographers use extra ingredients – like toothpicks and superglue – to make the products look as plump, juicy and appetizing as possible.

In truth, our stomachs are very fickle organs that can’t distinguish between images of food and the real thing. Speaking to Popular Science in 2020, neuroscientist Michael Graziano explained that our brains evolved in a world where photography didn’t exist. And because of that, a picture of a roast chicken triggers the same neuro response as the real thing did with our ancestors thousands of years ago.


10. Pumping up their marketing with flavorful and delicious adjectives

It’s not just images of food that gets our mouths watering – language also plays an equally important part. And this is a fact that fast food chains take into consideration when writing their marketing material. That’s why when you read the menu of a fast food chain, you’re likely to encounter enthusiastic descriptors like “tasty” and “delicious.”

Adjectives are everything for fast food chains. As identified by the linguist Dan Jurafsky in a 2014 analysis of Taco Bell for Mother Jones, these descriptors are powerful tools to convince consumers of the freshness or quality of their food. In contrast, upscale brands will usually replace these adjectives with exotic and sensual signifiers to appeal to more discerning audiences.


9. Their restaurants encourage a social experience rather than a quick dine

For years, the primary selling point of fast food has been the “fast” part of its title. But in recent times, chains have been pulling away from quick calorific fixes and have instead been rebranding their restaurants as places for people to gather. This way, they can encourage customers to stay longer and pay more for extra products like desserts or second helpings.

Fast food companies have maximized their restaurants’ interior spaces for total comfort and space. And some outlets have really gone the extra mile to achieve this goal. The Spaces website cites a branch of McDonald’s in Hong Kong which features stylish grey and white colors and concrete fixtures. They even have an open kitchen like countless Michelin star restaurants!


8. They sell products at certain times of the year to inflate demand

Some of you may remember back in 2017 when people went crazy over Szechuan sauce at McDonald’s. Kicked off by a reference in the cartoon Rick and Morty, the chain brought back the dip – last sold in 1998 – for an extremely limited run. In response, customers eager for the sauce queued in their thousands. Police even reportedly had to be called in to manage unruly mobs!

While this may be an extreme example, the Szechuan sauce run illustrates how effective limited promotions can be. Throughout the year, chains will introduce new items to their menu which soon disappear after a few weeks. And this brief window of opportunity will instil a sense of urgency in their customers who will drop everything to try this new soon-to-be-gone product.


7. Chains ensure their menus have exactly the right number of items

When it comes to ordering food, customers like to have a little choice. And yet, fast food chains walk a fine line ensuring that their diners don’t become overwhelmed with meal options. Putting a menu together is something of a balancing act, according to Business Insider. And each outlet must find the right number of items that leaves their audience neither under or overwhelmed.

In fact, researchers have devoted countless hours to discovering this optimum value. And it seems that academics at Bournemouth University in England may have cracked the code. According to a 2013 study, six options for each course served seems like the ideal amount to pique fast food customers’ interest without completely swamping their heads with choice.


6. Their menus lead your eye to the more expensive meals

Of course, curating a menu can be both tricky and time consuming for fast food chains. Just as important, though, is conveying these selections to customers via the physical menus found in-store. Here, it’s not just about informing diners of what a restaurant has in stock, but rather influencing them to the selection they want them to make.

In the design stage, Business Insider claims that restaurants will often use the menu’s physical layout to emphasize their premium products. So spaces on the menu where your eyes tend to look at first – like the top right – are reserved for more expensive items. On the other hand, cheaper meals will often be pushed to areas where your attention will wander last – like the bottom of the page.


5. By making their meals bigger than they’re actually billed

In 2004 fast food chains were apparently in a bind. Customers were growing more wary of calorific food thanks to documentaries like Super Size Me. And to put their minds at ease, McDonald’s and others made giant steps in a healthier direction. Under their “Eat Smart, Be Active” campaign, the company even discontinued their gigantic Supersize portions.

But there are some – like author Lisa R. Young – who believed this healthy change was simply a marketing tactic. Just three years after Supersize products were pulled, the nutritionist discovered that extra-large portions were still being served under different names like the 42-ounce Hugo drink. This way, companies like McDonald’s got to advertise more responsible meal sizes without significantly changing its actual menu.


4. They make a healthy menu that could be just as fattening as their regular meals

In order to keep themselves relevant in changing times, many fast food chains have incorporated healthier items into their menus. So alongside your typical burgers and fries, you can also grab a salad or wrap if you’re trying to cut down on the junk food. The only problem here is that these items may not be as good for you as they seem.

Take a chicken wrap at McDonald’s, for instance. While it seems healthier at first, the item actually boasts a whopping 544 calories, according to The Smart Local. Another issue is in the way healthy options are prepared, which differs little from how regular items are put together. That means fast food staples like sodium – a highly addictive ingredient – can show up in salads in large amounts.


3. Fast food chains make you want to collect the whole set

Most of us likely have fond memories of getting a McDonald’s Happy Meal when we were kids. Yet chances are that the warm, fuzzy feeling you got stemmed from the toy included in the meal rather than the food itself. And with each Happy Meal hiding a different plaything, you’d likely beg your parents to buy you another just so you could complete your set.

Now, you may be saying to yourself, “That’s true. But I’ve since grown up and no longer fall for those collectibles.” Well, think again! Today, promotions like the McDonald’s Monopoly Board appeal to the more mature collector. So no matter what your age is, there’ll always be a different goody to keep you coming back.


2. They link buying their food with donating to charity

On many of their adverts, fast food chains regularly advertise how part of your purchase goes to charitable organisations. Some chains even have their own not-for-profits like the Ronald McDonald House Charities. And yet, this generous activity often has less to do with philanthropy as it does with getting more customers through the door.

For most of these corporations, charity is just another form of promotion. Even Ronald McDonald House Charities founder Fred Turner – as quoted by the 2010 paper Clowning Around with Charity – admitted his brainchild’s creation “was probably 99 percent commercial.” And he may well be right, as the report goes on to claim that companies such as McDonald’s do indeed donate less than 1 percent of their revenue.


1. Their products are designed to overwhelm your sense of taste

We all know that eating fast food puts your health at risk and takes a toll on your wallet. So, why do we always keep coming back for more? Why whenever you eat a healthy snack now does it often taste dull by comparison? Well, this could be an intentional side-effect of how fast food companies prepare their product.

Out of all food, our brains love those stuffed with fat, sugar and salt the most. As it happens, fast food is also crammed with these flavors. So not only does eating fast food trigger a contented feeling in our heads, repeated consumption could redefine what your tastebuds view as delicious. It’s a situation so grave that consultants like Steven A. Witherly – via WebMD – have opined that these edibles are “affecting how we process food.”