Whopper or Flopper? A review of Burger King’s controversial new campaign

March 2020

Burger King CMO Fernando Machado came out swinging in recent days, penning a 2,764-word article fiercely defending the brand’s recently launched ‘Mouldy Burger’ campaign.

To say Fernando Machado is a bit of a cult hero amongst the marketing – and more specifically, advertising – fraternity would be an understatement. The brand’s consistently disruptive and provocative approach has produced some of the most talked about (and creatively awarded) campaigns in recent memory.

However, even considering Burger King’s reputation, the ‘Mouldy Whopper’ campaign is still a highly controversial production.

The Whopper itself is Burger King’s flagship product, and conventional wisdom suggests it’s not wise to undermine such an important asset for the purpose of making a quick buck. Whether subverting a key asset is genius or idiotic likely depends on which pundit you ask, and what they believe is more important – salience or brand image.

To balance the inherent subjectivity and bias of the people close to the campaign and within the marketing industry more broadly, we tested the ad amongst the target market – a nationally representative audience of fast-food consumers in the US.

To determine the effectiveness of advertising, we look at 3 C’s:

  • Captivate: Does it attract and retain attention, and engage in an emotional way?
  • Connect: Is the brand instantly recognisable?
  • Compel: Does it leave people with a lasting impression about the brand?

Captivate

Similarly to many other provocative and daring marketing stunts from Burger King, the ‘Mouldy Whopper’ campaign was seen to be highly distinctive. The vivid imagery and cinematic production highlighted every microscopic detail of the burger’s 34-day transformation, framing the ‘zero preservatives’ message in the most captivating way possible – holding viewers’ attention through to the end despite being highly confrontational.

Nonetheless, the gruesome burger clashed with the mouth-watering connotations fast-food consumers typically associate with the Whopper, evoking a more primal displeasure with the ad. As a result, ‘Mouldy Whopper’ left almost half of viewers feeling ‘disgusted’ and ‘grossed out’ – still a lean-forward response, but not the typical attributes fast-food companies want to associate themselves with.

Worryingly, these feelings translated into an extremely high level of wearout, with nearly half of people familiar with the campaign indicating they were fed up with it – despite frequency of exposure not being excessive.

Connect

Despite keeping the brand’s trademark Whopper front-and-centre, displaying the burger in a complete state of disrepair meant the impressions left by the ad were out of sync with the Burger King brand. Furthermore, ‘natural’ and ‘healthy’ connotations jarred with people’s perceptions of the fast-food category.

More broadly, Burger King’s haphazard marketing strategy has meant its communications have lacked a cohesive style and tone of voice. While the ‘Mouldy Burger’ concept was undeniably bold, it was not considered a good fit with how Burger King normally cultivates positive endearment from consumers.

Compel

The image of a rotting, deformed burger was the indelible impression people were left with. This triggered ‘gross’, ‘disgusting’ and ‘weird’ associations, overshadowing messaging around Burger King’s commitment to serving fresh, preservative-free food.

While there was a sense that Burger King was doing good and people consciously processed the information as being new and different to other fast-food retailers, the disfigured burger ultimately impeded perceptions of ‘taste’ and ‘quality’, while ‘health’ connotations were alarmingly subdued for an ad with such a clear and single-minded proposition.

While sparking social conversation and sharing, the ad ultimately left a foul taste in people’s mouths. This subsequently dampened their likelihood to visit Burger King in the short-term, but also prevented more favourable attitudes from being formed which would predispose them in the longer-term.

Conclusion

Debate has raged in the marketing community ever since the ‘Mouldy Burger’ campaign launched, with advertising experts divided over whether it’s effective.

On one hand, some – including Fernando Machado himself – have argued the ad’s sole objective was to incite conversation and keep Burger King top-of-mind, and on that basis it’s a resounding success. Conversely, others have suggested that leaving people with an instinctually unfavourable impression risks undermining the brand’s equity, and there are better ways to convey Burger King’s commitment to preservative-free food.

By inviting the people who the ad was designed to influence into the conversation, we find the answer lies somewhere in between – certainly not the transformational campaign that gushing adoration at forthcoming advertising award shows would suggest, but equally not one which risks harming Burger King’s iconic reputation.

The very simple learning for marketers is that attention is wasted if advertising doesn’t leave people with a positive, lasting impression about the brand.

Burger King Mouldy Whopper - Advertising Testing Results

This is a self-funded case study using our Advertising Testing solution.

We were supported by leading market research technology platform Cint to collect data from respondents in the US.

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