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Burger King Dethrones Creepy Mascot, Adds Oatmeal and Guacamole

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Burger King is parting ways with its creepy, plastic-masked King mascot and axing its entire edgy approach to marketing. The new strategy? Guacamole, oatmeal, and other healthy-sounding stuff that appeals to moms.

The reversal comes as Burger King ends its seven-year relationship with Crispin Porter & Bogusky, the much-buzzed-about ad firm that made the chain fast food's unquestioned leader in weird, offputting, and sometimes viral advertising. The idea was to ingratiate Burger King with its core market of teen boys when it unveiled the King character in 2004, having the mute monarch appear in an unsuspecting customer's bed in a TV spot that set the tone for an increasingly odd brand identity.

Before long, Crispin was cranking out campaigns that got people talking, if not necessarily salivating over Burger King's food: 2007's "Whopper Freakout" recorded real customers' reactions to being told the Whopper was out of stock, while the "Subservient Chicken" Web app let users boss around a giant chicken on a fake webcam. (If that appeals to you, try it now, because it's anyone's guess how long the new marketing bosses will keep the page up.)

Of course, there were controversial campaigns, like the "Whopper Virgin" ads that some called exploitative for shoving burgers in the faces of far-flung peoples who'd never tasted fast foods. And the gender-norm-enforcing "Manthem" spots seemed designed to annoy feminists, and presumably to delight those who enjoy seeing feminists riled up.

But all's fair in the name of generating buzz, right? All publicity's good publicity, yes? Well, not necessarily. As Seth Stevenson of Slate put it in a 2007 takedown of Crispin's sense of humor:

When Crispin took over the Burger King account, (company CEO) 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.

... 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.

Indeed, while the innovative ads gave marketing pros something to talk about, they've never done much for sales: Burger King's same-store sales dropped 6% in the first quarter, and it's long remained well behind competitors like McDonald's and Subway.

The focus on young males also put the burger joint out of step with consumers' move toward fresher, healthier foods. From USA Today:

Industry experts say the move may be Burger King's best bet of giving Ronald McDonald any hint of competition. In a world where Cheesecake Factory now has a low-cal menu and even Sizzler touts the freshness of its grub, Burger King is latching onto the all-critical fresh-and-healthy-food factor.

"Call it the Whole Foods effect," says Ron Paul, president of consulting firm Technomic. Target's bragging about fresh food, he notes. 7-Eleven's touting it. And Subway's made billions from that premise. "Fresh is it," Paul says.

When the convenience store that slings Slurpees and Big Bite hot dogs is jumping on the freshness bandwagon, you know it's here to stay.

So, the new approach is to focus on the (relatively) healthful: The chain today added Quaker oatmeal to its breakfast menu, following the lead of pretty much everyone else in the industry. And commercials under new ad boss McGarryBowen will eschew humor to try to show that there's honest-to-God meat and produce in these burgers.

Here's the first example, a TV spot for the new California Whopper, the guacamole-and-swiss-topped sandwich that, while the guacamole may not be freshly prepared, is being positioned as the centerpiece of the new, fresh Burger King:

Actually, now that we look at it, the extreme food-and-knife closeups and slicey-dicey sounds are really reminiscent of the opening title sequence to Showtime's serial-killer series Dexter. But Burger King's new at this non-creepy commercial thing, so let's give them time to get it right.
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