Will Burger King’s Whopper campaign pay off? Or will it decompose after a few weeks?

A mouldy Whopper.

‘Repulsion’ is an unusual goal for an advertising campaign.

Usually, ‘attraction’ is what advertising agencies strive for. But not with the latest Burger King campaign.

Beyond a business-as-usual ‘buy our burgers’ campaign, this one has higher stakes. Why? Because Burger King has promised to remove all artificial preservatives from its ‘Whoppers’ across all US locations by the end of the year. 

Fernando Machado, chief managing officer for parent company Restaurant Brands International, says: “At Burger King, we believe that real food tastes better. That’s why we are working hard to remove preservatives, colors and flavors from artificial sources from the food we serve in all countries around the world.”

So, how do you show a burger without all those hidden nasties?

You’ve likely watched the time-lapse photos of ageless Big Macs, marinated in additives and seemingly resistant to the test of time.

So, in theory, the reverse device to prove the absence of preservatives seems like a good idea. What could possibly go wrong?

Except, absent modern chemistry, over time, you get a mouldy pile of icky ooze.

A weeks-old Whopper looks like something you forgot in the back of your fridge… until the day you open the door, wondering what that terrible smell is.

I can almost hear the creative wizards high on their idea. ‘Let’s light the mouldy burger like a Lamborghini against a black backdrop. Really zoom in on those sexy mould spores. Now we need some clever copy. I know, “the beauty of no artificial preservatives”. Oh yeah, baby, this rocks.’

Or, in the words of Björn Ståhl, executive creative director for agency Ingo: “The mould campaign might be challenging to common sense, but it was also a difficult one to accomplish in terms of craft and required months to achieve. We are very proud of crafting this idea.”

Rewind a few millennia, and an aversion to eating fetid food that could kill you was an essential biological response. And while time has passed, this response remains.

So, when you have billboard-sized images of rotting burgers splashed across the US and Europe, people think, ‘buy a Whopper, it might kill you’.

A brand is a result of the promises you keep.

‘No artificial preservatives’ is a worthwhile promise from Burger King. However, by making the ads about what happens when you don’t have preservatives in a burger that you don’t eat for 30-plus days, Burger King doesn’t amplify the message, it undermines it. What’s attractive about a burger without preservatives on day one remains a mystery. 

This isn’t a puny promise. The choice to remove preservatives is a trade to earn goodwill from customers who want a ‘healthier’ burger. This comes with plenty of operating considerations from new supply chain processes to increased food waste levels. It’s a significant investment, and Burger King needs a pay-off. 

So, will the campaign bump Whopper sales?

Probably. A pile of publicity, both purchased and via the reliable megaphone of controversy, usually does. The long-term cost of imprinting a rotting burger with a Burger King logo, however, is less clear. 

In a lesson for organisations of all sizes, I have to wonder if a different approach could have served the promise and both masters — attention and attraction — without the side of yuk.

See you next time.

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