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Fast food chains aired millions of spots on radio during the first nine months of the year, using the airwaves to lure hungry listeners to drive-thru pick up windows for a safe way to dine out during the pandemic. McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Taco Bell were the top radio advertisers in the quick-service restaurant category from Jan. 1 - Sept. 30, 2020 according to new data from Media Monitors

With 700,000 spots aired in the 85 markets Media Monitors tracks, McDonald’s maintained its dominance as radio’s top QSR account, although its spot count declined from nearly 1 million during the same period in 2019.

With 400,000 spot occurrences, Wendy’s ascended to second place in the category, leapfrogging past Subway, which finished second in 2019. 

With breakfast representing 8% of total U.S. sales, Wendy’s announced in August that it would launch a $15 million marketing campaign for the rest of 2020. The fast food chain aired 537,837 spots across radio, television and cable, but 394,613 of those spots were on radio.

Taco Bell was close behind in third place on the radio tally, up from fourth in 2019 with about the same number of spots broadcast in both years.

The remainder of the top 10 fast food chains at radio for the first nine months of the year are Dairy Queen at 4, Domino’s at 5, Dunkin at 6, Chick-fil-A at 7, KFC at 8, Sonic at 9, and Subway at 10.

“The best time to entice hungry diners is while they’re in the car, making radio advertising even more valuable for fast food marketers,” says Philippe Generali, President and CEO of Media Monitors. “With schools and other activities reopening, people are learning how to live with the virus, so they’re venturing out more. Fast food offers the flexibility to eat out but not have to dine inside a restaurant. This advantage, combined with the value of the meal, makes fast food just right for today’s pandemic economy.”

While drive-thru pick-up windows gave QSRs a built-in edge in the COVID-19 era, Generali says menu items are the category’s secret marketing weapon. McDonald’s collaboration with rapper Travis Scott led to a shortage of burgers at some restaurants, while Wendy’s began serving breakfast menu items in March. The two fast food chains rank first and second, respectively, in Media Monitors’ latest rankings of top advertisers in the category across radio, TV and cable combined.

Recovery Began In May

Fast food is the only dining segment that began its recovery as early as May, and there are now  longer lines and wait times at their drive-thrus. Sales are increasing as the restaurant chains market promotions like the Travis Scott meal.

 “People still want to eat out, but don’t feel comfortable sitting inside,” says Generali. “As the weather gets colder, fast food advertisers have an opportunity to drive higher demand by focusing on the menu, a strategy that’s already proven to be very effective this year.”

The top 50 fast food advertisers aired a combined 5.75 million spots between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, 2020. Overall, the top 50 aired more than half of instances – 54% – on radio and one-third of their spots on television.

Taco Bell, which ranked third overall, aired nearly all of its instances on radio. Meanwhile, Subway – the No. 3 advertiser overall in 2019 – fell to No. 18 in the latest analysis.

Among the top 10 overall, five advertisers – McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Domino’s, and DQ Dairy Queen – aired more spots on radio. By contrast, Jack in the Box, Sonic, Papa John’s, Checkers-Rally’s and Arby’s, aired the majority of their spots on television.