McDonald's Monopoly starts today

The golden archesMcDonald's kicks off its annual Monopoly game today, Oct. 6, giving fans of fast-food and the popular game of capitalism a long shot at winning prizes without having to work for it.

The Puritan Work Ethic is out the door here, with only the purchase of a drink, sending in a written request for a game ticket, or playing online with a game code needed for a chance to win anything from an online gaming subscription (1 in 110 chance of winning) to $1 million paid at $50,000 a year for 20 years without interest (odds of 1 in 273,825,959). Why look for work when you can buy a Big Mac and possibly win some free money, even though you're more likely to get killed by a lightning strike -- 2.3 million to 1 versus 273 million to one for the big prize.

Collect all of the properties in a color group and you win a prize. Only two pieces are needed for the $1 million prize: Park Place and Boardwalk. The odds are much worse for the $50,000 prize -- one chance in 7 million -- and four game pieces must be collected to win it. As I wrote a year ago for WalletPop, the odds of winning are crazy. You're better off taking your McDonald's money and putting it in a trust fund.

Everyone loves a good game, and the company has turned McDonald's Monopoly into one of the hottest promos since it began the game in 1987. Almost everyone wins something, no matter how small. A quarter of the game pieces result in instant prizes, according to The Motley Fool, but the larger rewards and the chance to win by just collecting one more piece of property are what keeps people coming back.

Like finding the golden ticket to tour Willy Wonka's chocolate factory or a digging to the bottom of a cereal box for a plastic toy, treasure hunts are smart ways to attract customers. They create excitement and give customers a reason to come back. Park Place might be easy to get, but the elusive Boardwalk will keep you coming back for more -- although not for any low calorie treats, since the game pieces aren't on salad containers or yogurt parfaits at McDonald's.

The McDonald's Monopoly instant prizes used to be food, but now include such things as a one-night DVD rental, Snapfish photo prints, $10 Walmart gift card, three-month Pogo.com game site subscription, EA Sports video game, three-night beach vacation for a family of four, and a car.

The short contest may add to the thrill of the chase. The game ends Nov. 1, leaving only 26 days to beat the long odds. If you're bad at math, McDonald's Monopoly is your game.

Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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