Burger King's new strategy.

Advertising deconstructed.
Oct. 11 2004 10:41 AM

The Return of the King

Burger King is resurrecting a dubious icon. Why?

The King is back The Spot: It's morning. Birds are chirping. A man wakes up in his bed … and discovers he's not alone! Next to him on the mattress there is some sort of royal personage: a king, clad in burgundy robes and a crown. But the king's head appears to be made of plastic and is perhaps three times too large for his body. He hands the stunned man a breakfast sandwich. They laugh together.

Burger King has a problem. It needs to jump-start its breakfast business, but (according to BK's ad agency) when America thinks about fast food breakfasts, it overwhelmingly thinks of McDonald's. Burger King just holds no place in our breakfast imagination. So, if BK makes an ad about how tasty it would be to eat a greasy breakfast sandwich, viewers reflexively think: "Hey, yum, that would indeed be tasty—let's go get an Egg McMuffin at McDonald's."

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

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So, what to do? The key is to make sure that you "get credit" for the spot, as they say in the ad game. The ad must be unmistakably linked with Burger King. Thus the focus of this "Wake Up With the King" spot is not so much on the new Double Croissan'wich. (Though it is mentioned, and the sandwich is briefly pictured.) The focus is on the dude with the gargantuan plastic head, bejeweled crown, and burgundy robes. The King sort of hits you between the eyes—it's difficult to forget that he represents Burger King.

Interestingly, this King character was a fixture of Burger King marketing in the late 1970s. (Although the disco-era King had a proportionate, non-plastic head.) You could often find a costumed King performing magic tricks and making balloon animals in the parking lot outside your local BK franchise. So, in a certain sense, this ad is a throwback—it draws on Burger King's proud (OK, dubious) brand history.

But why on earth does the King have a plastic, three-times-too-big head, like some sort of King Friday bobblehead doll? Apparently, an exec at Burger King's ad agency (Crispin Porter + Bogusky) was trolling eBay for inspiration when he came across a vintage, oversized King head for sale. (The head had a hole in its mouth, suggesting it was made to fit atop a helium canister and inflate those animal balloons.) This massive plastic head sat in the CPB office during brainstorming sessions and eventually found its way into the campaign. (It was remodeled by a Hollywood effects specialist first.)

One benefit of the plastic head is that Burger King isn't locked into using a specific actor. (I'm looking at you, Mr. Wendy.) McDonald's solves this problem by caking Ronald in a 4-inch-thick mask of makeup. (It could be Meryl Streep under there, for all you know.) Burger King just uses an actual mask.

But there's more to it than that. Using a ridiculous plastic head, and an absurd situation, gives this ad an edgier mood—more ironic and wink-wink—than that of your average fast food campaign. And that's the goal. CPB thinks Burger King can differentiate itself with a hipper vibe. Its competitors (namely McDonald's and Wendy's) have more family-friendly images and thus couldn't (or wouldn't) go as far. More Burger King marketing in this edgier mode: the Subservient Chicken Web site. Meanwhile, when McDonald's tries to get hip, they show us kids playing basketball on rollerblades. BK's stuff is just far more subversive. CPB says the core market for fast food is 18- to 35-year-old males, and these are "the most cynical" consumers out there. In setting the mood for the campaign, CPB tries to keep in mind "the cool uncle—the uncle who tells you how things really are, and lets you get away with a little bit more than your mom and dad do."

I think the ad works. "Wake Up With the King" is a clear, catchy announcement that Burger King's back in breakfast. (And in the future, we will likely see the King reappear in "Up Late With the King" ads for BK's late-night offerings—another "periphery daypart" where Burger King hopes to boost its sales.)

The one thing I could do without is the ad's final shot, where the King rests his hand on the other guy's knee and they suddenly get uncomfortable. I imagine this was put there to diffuse any homoerotic tension and throw a bone to the mainstream, meat-and-potatoes crowd. (See, we're not so hip that we're beyond a little homophobia.) But it's unnecessary, and it dampens the goofball fun of the spot.

Grade: A-. By the way, the Double Croissan'wich (with two meat portions and two slices of cheese) is officially classified an "indulgent sandwich" in Burger King terminology. "Our research showed there was space for a larger, more indulgent build," says Paul Macaluso, Burger King product manager for breakfasts. "Our customers were ready for it." In other words: Have it your way, fatty!

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