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When Ads Go Strange: Burger King Mascot Gets Creepy


His royal "heinous" breaks windows, massages models -- and boosts business.

In the old days, Burger King (BKC), with its affable cartoon king mascot, trumpeted itself as the place "Where kids are king." Now it's the place where kids are creeped out.

Thanks to a nightmarish advertising campaign starring a human bobblehead in a king's robe and tights that relentlessly stalks its prey with sandwiches, the burger franchise has entered horror-movie territory. The mute spokesman, dubbed simply "the King," with his disproportionately large plastic head, unblinking eyes, and frozen grin, has a fear factor rivaling some of our most terrifying villains.

Move over Leatherface, there's a new monster in town: Plasticface.

Make no mistake, the King is no gentle giant (head) with a heart of gold. He's a habitual criminal with a rap sheet that reads like that of your average medium security prison inmate: breaking and entering, destruction of property, theft... He inflicts crippling wedgies, sneaks into bedrooms to wake people in the middle of the night by blowing an air horn and crashing cymbals, and takes pictures of horrified couples about to have sex while he, himself, stands at the foot of their bed, naked. (See a series of the commercials here.)

What is the King's defense for these felonious acts? Insanity. After all, he's apparently a fugitive from a psychiatric hospital.

Once the benevolent "Marvelous Magical Burger King" of the late '70s who delighted children the Burger Kingdom over with magic tricks and balloon animals, this retooled "Creepy King" version of the burger mascot came courtesy of ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky (CP+B) in 2004. The hipper-than-thou firm was hired to inject some bovine into the stale burger franchise -- which was still resting on the laurels of its 1974 "Have It Your Way" ad campaign and had slipped from the second to third link in the fast food chain (behind McDonald's (MCD) and Wendy's (WEN)). With their finger on the pulse of the burger-consuming public, CP+B reincarnated his royal heinous and rebuilt him a pop culture empire. In addition to starring in a spate of TV commercials, the insta-icon was marketed in movie promotion tie-ins, a line of video games, and Halloween masks, and was even commissioned as a figurine in Madame Tussauds wax museum. Naturally, with that kind of fame there's bound to be women. But not just women: models! Don't be surprised when the King's fall from grace results in a sex tape, a drug arrest, and a role on season four of Celebrity Rehab.

When it came time for Burger King to promote its TenderCrisp chicken sandwich, CP+B reached back into its quirky bag of tricks and pulled out the Subservient Chicken -- a welcome change to the prevailing fast food "domineering chicken" stereotype. "We wanted to launch the product and make a splash with a new product introduction in an unconventional way, but at the same time, staying true to the brand promise," said Brian Gies, Burger King VP of marketing.

Giving new meaning to the "Have It Your Way" slogan, in 2004 the company launched a viral marketing campaign featuring a submissive chicken-costumed man ready at our "peck and call." A series of master-and-servant-themed commercials showed hipsters making sexually suggestive demands of the garter-belt-clad chicken. An interactive website aping a live porn video feed shows the chicken standing in front of a webcam ready to perform up to 400 preselected commands that are typed in by the user.

If web traffic is any indication of the Subservient Chicken's success, the site has received nearly a half a billion hits with 20 million unique visitors, according to its creator, the Barbarian Group. The campaign also garnered industry praise at the 2005 Viral Awards winning the "Most Infectious North American Viral" and "Most Creative Use of Technology" awards. That same year, CP+B took top honors at the CLIO Awards. With competition like the Bud Light (BUD) "Cedric the Entertainer" bikini wax ad, it gets only a half-shrug.

Following the King and Subservient Chicken marketing campaigns, Burger King won back its market share from Wendy's (trailing only McDonald's) with Technomic reporting a sales spike of up to 14 percent. And while between 2003 and 2008 McDonald's total dollar sales grew 21 percent more than Burger King's, it also outspent its competitor on advertising by nearly 2-1. CP+B clearly offered the bigger bang for its buck.

It goes to show, when it comes to the business of burger advertising, there's just no accounting for taste.
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