Burger King’s new ads wanted to get Google Homes talking.

Burger King Overcame Google’s Defenses to Target Google Homes With Its New Ads

Burger King Overcame Google’s Defenses to Target Google Homes With Its New Ads

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
April 13 2017 3:22 PM

Burger King’s New Ad Campaign Wasn’t Targeting Customers. It Was Targeting Google Homes.

82504247-burger-king-whopper-jr-meal-sits-on-a-tray-at-a-burger
A Burger King Whopper Jr. meal.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In a 15-second Burger King ad that started playing Wednesday afternoon on YouTube, an actor looks at the camera and says, “OK, Google, what is the Whopper burger?”

In living rooms across the country, Google Homes responded by reading from the Wikipedia entry for the Whopper.

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It was the first strike in a strange, interactive advertising campaign by Burger King that amused and alarmed smart speaker owners whose always-listening A.I. assistants have come with some occasionally odd side effects.

In the aftermath, pranksters and Burger King supporters entered an editing war over the content of the Wikipedia entry—the Washington Post reported that it appeared that Burger King itself might have attempted to edit the entry to be more positive. Meanwhile, Google jumped into action to block the call-and-response. Within a few hours, Google Homes were no longer triggered by the sound bites from the ad but still responded to the same query from real-life users. It seemed Burger King had been defeated.

But an undeterred Burger King told reporters to keep an eye out in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles on Wednesday night during The Tonight Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live. Sure enough, a new version of the ad set off the Google Homes. It’s not yet clear what the technical difference was between the first version and the second.

There’s room for debate as to whether it was a successful ad campaign. On YouTube, it has more than 12,000 dislikes and 9,000 likes—not a ratio advertisers tend to love. And during the times when the pranksters had reign over the Wikipedia page, the personal assistants informed audiences that the Whopper caused cancer, or that it included cyanide and human children as ingredients. But it also garnered a considerable amount of attention and got people talking about Burger King.

More importantly, it has people thinking about the ways new technologies can enable advertisers to reach into their homes in more invasive ways. Google has experimented with its own ads that interacted with people’s Homes (although it didn’t acknowledge them as advertising), and people have been reporting accidental cases of televisions setting off personal assistants by accident. Now, we might see more advertisers emulating Burger King and intentionally trying to target the smart devices listening in on our lives.

As the Verge pointed out, it seems possible the point of this ad was less to advertise to Google Home owners than it was to gain the attention of the news media by tapping into our fascination with and hand-wringing over new technology’s issues with privacy and intrusive advertising. In which case, well played, Burger King.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Molly Olmstead is a Slate assistant social media editor.