In an attempt to lure humans to try exotic new menu items like extra long pulled pork and chicken fries, Burger King, with much fanfare, recently invited its chief competitor, McDonald’s, to collaborate on a mutant burger called the McWhopper.
The Internet barely had time to do its work before McDonald’s roundly rejected the invitation, confirming what we’ve known all along—that McDonald’s is run by sad, humorless people who probably eat the two-cheeseburger value meal every day with paper napkins tucked into the collars of their Dwight Shrute shirts.
The McWhopper idea was accompanied by a smart and attractive website, and, in all, it was a clever and well-executed PR stunt. But, true to brand, it left a bad taste in my mouth.
To demonstrate why, I want to talk for a minute about the Well Done staff, which is comprised primarily of vegetarians and health-conscious eaters. The handful of us who do eat Burger King do so only shamefully, usually while alone in our cars, discarding the evidence afterward in a faraway dumpster. No amount of clever advertising will change that. Ever.
Yet, we—myself included—reflexively applauded the McWhopper campaign. How original! How smart! How disruptive!
For another, similar, example, here’s something my colleague Abby Reckard recently wrote about the advertising of another brand that sells stuff that’s bad for you:
I don’t drink soda. I think its over-consumption is responsible for all sorts of health problems from obesity and diabetes, to rotting teeth and stomachs-coated-in-plastic. However, I love Coca-Cola as a brand. I’m happy to turn a blind eye to the health problems that come with a daily Big Gulp because of their oh-so-charming commercials.
I agree with Abby: Coke makes charming commercials. But I don’t agree that it’s a good brand—not anymore. Especially not since it started funding dangerously bogus research in an effort to shore up its flagging sales.
Like Coke, Burger King is struggling to compete in a market where people are better informed than ever about the health hazards of its products. Soda and fast food are, essentially, the cigarettes of our time. But unlike cigarette companies, Coke and Burger King don’t sell products that are unalterably bad. The far-better marketing strategy for both brands would be to invest in healthier products.
As it is now, one could convincingly argue that Burger King and Coke are actively making the world a worse place. And they’re trying to compensate for that with advertising that either manipulates our emotions or that superficially promotes some noble social cause.
Yes, superficially, the advertising is excellent. And as advertising people, we can’t help but admire it on a superficial level. But if we’re at all in touch with reality, we must also strenuously call bullshit on Burger King’s zany antics and on Coke’s stellar storytelling. It’s shallow and cynical, and, at the end of the day, the products are still shitty and bad for you.
But is it good advertising? If Coke produces a moving cinematic vignette that makes us weepy about family, but doesn’t move the needle in how we feel about Coke as a product, does it matter? Or do we cynically think, “Oh, we’re too savvy to be tricked by this stuff, but mainstream America will fall for it.”
And isn’t that what both of these campaigns are, anyway: attempts to con us into believing that a bad product is good by craftily associating it with a feeling or a cause that makes us feel good?
Man. Sometimes I hate advertising.
But then I remember that the industry has come a long way over the years. Yes, sleazy types with the self-awareness of a lopping shear are still drawn to the business. But more and more, they’re relegated to the sidelines, working for dubious clients for short-term gain. The future of advertising doesn’t belong to them. It belongs to the do-gooders. If you don’t believe me, just ask the customers. They’re always right.