My beef is more with how Crispin uses all that power. Because it seems that every time it takes over a brand, that brand quickly adopts an off-putting, bullying personality. For instance, Volkswagen's image throughout the 1990s was laid-back, progressive, and nongendered. Yet when Crispin won the account, its very first set of ads encouraged reckless driving and careless misogyny.
Crispin also appears to have a strange obsession with dictating the bounds of male identity. In the "Un-pimp Your Ride" spots for VW, a somewhat cruel protagonist ridicules young men who dare to seek self-expression through the art of modifying their cars. In the "Making Things Right" campaign for Haggar, two middle-aged guys gruffly rule their suburban neighborhood—advocating physical force against any young men who dare to wear earrings, or listen to rap music, or date your daughter. And then there's that Man Law campaign for Miller, where the concept achieves its most literal form.
I hate this kind of subjugating, behavior-circumscribing, frat-guy approach to humor. I realize it appeals to a certain target demographic (i.e., fratty guys of all ages). But it repels almost everyone else. And there's a danger in that.
When Crispin took over the Burger King account, Jeff Hicks told me, the agency "made a decision to be about the 'superfans' who are in the category on a daily basis." (Meaning young men, who are the most reliable fast-food eaters.) So, while McDonald's puts out upbeat, earnest ads aimed at women and children, and has a family-friendly mascot in Ronald McDonald, Burger King has abandoned any effort at broad-based appeal. BK's ads are full of irony and dark humor, and their creepily mute brand icon is the anti-Ronald.
Perhaps this is the correct strategy for Burger King. It's too early to say. But look at what's happening in the gaming-console business—another category traditionally focused on young men. While the PlayStation and the Xbox have fought a war over hard-core tech specs and nerdy graphics capabilities, the Nintendo Wii has gone the opposite route—roping in casual gamers, women and girls, and even retirees. As a result, the Wii has been a tremendous hit.
There's something to be said for maintaining focus on your core customer. But Crispin risks pigeonholing itself as an agency that understands only one kind of person. If they can't find a new voice—one that speaks to a wider range of consumers—I fear the Miller mess might be less an anomaly than a sign of things to come.