The Burger King can't fool me.

Advertising deconstructed.
Oct. 24 2005 5:32 AM

Masked

Is Burger King trying to put one over on me?

Click on image to enlarge.

A few weeks ago, on Sept. 30, I received an e-mail from a reader:"Just by chance, do you know if they will be selling a BK King mask for Halloween."

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.

I knew this referred to the plastic-headed "King" character from Burger King's ongoing ad campaign. But it seemed a slightly odd, out-of-nowhere query. Before I could give it much thought, a few more e-mails rolled in.

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Here's one from Oct. 5: "How does a nobody like me, go about obtaining a Burger King head/mask, to use for Halloween? Do you have any ideas?"

And later that same day: "how can someone go about getting a burger king head like the one in the comercials. This would make an excellent costume now that halloween is aproaching and everyone I know seems to eat @ burger king on a regular basis."

This last smelled pungently fishy. Why were these readers (about 6 or 7 in all) so eager to dress as a corporate mascot? Why did they get the idea at the exact same time? Why was no one asking about, say, Geico caveman costumes? And wouldn't it be infinitely funnier to dress as the Dove ladies?

I called up Crispin Porter + Bogusky, Burger King's ad agency, and … well, how about that, it happens they have a Web site that sells King masks for $9 a pop. And the site launched on Oct. 7—gosh, right after I started getting all those e-mails! I asked if Crispin was responding to a recent groundswell of mask demand. They acknowledged that the masks had been manufactured months ago, to be ready in time for Halloween. I then asked if Crispin had covertly attacked my inbox, orchestrating the e-mails in hopes of creating the false impression that people were clamoring for these masks. The PR guy answered, "Not that I know of." His mealy-mouthed tone convinced me that my suspicions were justified. I asked him to check around and confirm this one way or the other, but I haven't heard back since.

I admit there's a chance that I'm wrong, and that these e-mailers—of their own volition—suddenly, earnestly, and simultaneously wondered if they might buy Halloween masks from a fast-food conglomerate. But let's assume for a moment that Crispin used "buzz marketing" to fake me out and get my attention (as I'm convinced they did). Is there anything wrong with that?

Well, for one thing, it's lying. All marketing is built on lies, of course (you won't sleep with those twins if you drink Coors Light), but this is a more pointed deception than the stock fantasy offered by beer ads. At issue here is some deliberate misrepresentation. Maybe it's a special case because the target (meaning me) is a journalist, whereas the standard buzz-marketing campaign enlists people to shadily talk up a new product with friends and co-workers ("I love this new [book/digital camera/whatever]—you should check it out!"). But it's still dishonesty, no matter who the victim is.

According to recent articles in Ad Age, this type of thing is drawing a lot of watchdog scrutiny and may even become illegal (it bumps up against the industry's regulations on disclosure). Beyond that, it just ruins life for everyone. Once I became suspicious about the King mask e-mails, I started questioning every e-mail I received. Was my inbox full of innocuous notes from readers … or was it teeming with manipulations emanating from dark, unseen forces? The fabric of my existence was ripping wide open! I began to feel angry and paranoid.

In an effort to avoid such outcomes, the Word of Mouth Marketing Association has posted a code of ethics on its Web site. The WOMMA code includes such rules as "say who you're speaking for" and "never disguise your identity." And in the forthcoming book Grapevine: The New Art of Word-of-Mouth Marketing, Dave Balter (the founder of BzzAgent *—a pioneer in this field) insists that deception hurts a word-of-mouth campaign and that honest disclosure will get better results. Which sounds wonderful. But is not entirely plausible. What if my e-mailers had written, "I've been enlisted by Burger King's ad agency to pester you, so here goes"? Would that have been more effective? Why not just send me a press release instead?

Grapevine actually spanks Crispin for an earlier Burger King effort—the "subservient chicken" Web site, which allowed you to direct a man in a chicken costume to do things "your way," à la the Burger King slogan. The book claims that even during the chicken's heyday, McDonald's Web traffic increased more than Burger King's. Interesting tidbit. The thing I noticed most about this campaign, though, was the disappointment that trailed in its wake. When the chicken came into people's lives as a quirky, unidentified Web project (the BK branding was very subtle), they thought he was sort of cool. Later, when they realized that he was promoting a Burger King sandwich, these same people became bitter and resentful. No one enjoys being duped into forwarding an advertisement to all her friends. Some people even felt they had to apologize.

Unfortunately, mild deceptions—mostly in the form of anonymous viral campaigns like this—seem to be Crispin's specialty. And it's paid off for them. Crispin has been the hottest ad house in the country for quite some time, and it won this year's Clio for best agency. The acclaim is well-deserved: I love a lot of their TV spots, and they're at the forefront of "media agnosticism" (using the Web and nontraditional techniques in concert with print and TV ads). Everything's working for them right now.

But I'd worry, especially given the looming crackdown those Ad Age stories seem to suggest, that Crispin's bread-and-butter moves are about to meet with some backlash. Tricking me as a means of promotion just makes me mad. Routinely tricking consumers with anonymous buzz could ruin a brand's image. Of course, for now, Crispin gets precisely what it wanted: I'm writing about their fricking Halloween masks. Just $9, makes a terrific costume!

Wow, and as I look at the site now it appears the mask was so popular that it completely sold out. This depresses me for two reasons: 1) It's Halloween—the one night when transgression is celebrated and condoned, with rampant death-worship, cross-dressing, and mischief of all kinds—and we're volunteering to dress up as advertisements for massive corporations. Last year, iPod costumes, this year the King. 2) I can't help but wonder if this is another trick from Crispin—pretending the mask sold out to suggest hot demand. Is my paranoia spinning out of control? Or is it just a natural response? Once you go down this rabbit hole, it's tough to get back out.

******

Readers, help me find my bearings: Am I overreacting? Is this the nature of the game? Did any of you buy a BK mask, and if so, why? Send responses to adreportcard@slate.com.

* Correction, October 31, 2005: This piece initially misspelled the name of the firm BzzAgent. Click here to return to the corrected sentence.

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