TO ROT OR NOT. THAT IS THE (MILLION DOLLAR) QUESTION [EXPERT ROUND UP]

26 March 2020 Bec Derrington

Not so long ago, Burger King launched an advertising campaign that showed how quickly their burger would decompose (into a mouldy, unappetising spectacle), in an effort to demonstrate that their burgers were made with ‘real’ ingredients and NOT packed with additives that artificially prolong the fast food’s shelf life.

Many felt this was a creative virtuoso, while others facepalmed in disgust.

So, armed with my own opinion (which I share at the end of this post), I invited some industry insiders to share their thoughts about this much hyped advertising campaign and whether it would sell more burgers or just win an award at Cannes.


1. IN THE 'YES' CORNER

It’s "genius"

An ad displaying a rapidly decaying burger is genius.

Burger King understands its position in the marketplace, so can stand apart from its rival McDonalds by having an ad that addresses the ever popular posts and memes on social media about McDonalds food, which never decays.

Imagery speaks a thousand words. People seek natural foods. This ad directly speaks to the social media posts being shared everyday about McDonald's food.  

Imagery speaks a thousand words. People seek natural foods. This ad directly speaks to the social media posts being shared everyday about McDonald's food.
Tiffany Joy Greene, MPWRSource.com


"Not too shabby"

It has received a mixed response from consumers but could still be a successful ploy by the company.

The "Moldy Whopper" spot accumulated more than 1.7 million YouTube hits at press time following its Feb. 19 debut. It has helped in capturing attention and has communicated that Burger King is introducing a Whopper free of artificial preservatives, colors, and flavors in its restaurants. According to Ace Matrix, “there are still some ways a mold-minded strategy could backfire”.

The firm suggested that Burger King would be wise to not place moldy Whopper ads too close to store locations to avoid putting off potential customers.

I personally, think that due to growing consciousness among the Americans about health and organic food, this could be wonderful. We know that for a few years, McDonald's has been under the fire regarding how its food doesn't appear to decompose as one would expect. So, in my opinion, the effort is not too shabby and can be a brilliant capture strategy.

So, in my opinion, the effort is not too shabby and can be a brilliant capture strategy.
Jennifer Willy, Etia.com


Not surprised if they experienced a positive ROI

Burger King's ad is certainly disruptive and polarizing. Some are claiming the ad worked really well, while others claim it completely crashed and burned. Any true marketing expert knows that, without seeing the resulting data, we cannot know for sure and these claims are simply baseless assumptions.

That being said, my position (equally data-less assumption) is this...Burger King is a massive business with a big marketing budget, so chances are this campaign wasn't done without ample market research and testing to validate the idea in advance. With that in mind, I wouldn't be surprised if they experienced a positive return on investment.

With that in mind, I wouldn't be surprised if they experienced a positive return on investment. 
Amanda Goldman-PetriMarketLikeANerd.com 


"Striking and bold"

This kind of ad works really well in today's world.

The main reason is because it is something completely different, striking and bold! Consumers love that!

However, it also works on another level because it appeals to a person's moral compass. People are always on the lookout for reputable companies, and shouting from the rooftops that your burger has no artificial preservatives in it is a huge thing for consumers in 2020.

However, it also works on another level because it appeals to a person's moral compass.
Ryan Jones, Imaginaire Digital 

Consumers want the raw truth

Yes, I think the commercial works.

For many years, consumers have been marketed based on what looks great, but I believe we are coming into a new era in which consumers are tired of being lied to.

...I believe we are coming into a new era in which consumers are tired of being lied to.

Consumers want the raw and true facts of products. Especially with the health and food conscious consumers that want something fast, they will choose a burger with no artificial preservatives over a chemical modified food. The world is waking up and becoming more aware of what we are consuming and feeding our bodies.

The ad is not sexy, nor appealing, but it is straight facts and makes your wonder what the competitor is doing with their products loaded with artificial preservatives.

The fast food industry is now competing against healthy fast food (also known as fast casual restaurants), so burger joints are no longer competing against burger joints - they are competing against alternative healthy fast food restaurants.

Yes, the ad is amazing and wakes up customers next time they choose a burger, they will choose the one with no artificial preservatives.

Miguel Sanchez, @wadaamike

Burger King aren’t selling burgers...they’re “selling a philosophy”

Does it work? YES/NO. Burger King’s global campaign announcing the removal of artificial colours and preservatives from the brand’s food items is a clever and creative representation of anti-marketing at its best. 

Conventional marketing wisdom objects to a decaying Whopper burger as the hero visual on a food advertisement, but this campaign is flying in the face of widely held beliefs that appetite appeal is the way to promote food brands. 

 Burger King aren’t intending to sell burgers with this campaign, they are selling a philosophy, one that consumers today align with. Increasingly modern consumers want to know that the brands they support share their values.  As people become more socially conscious, they are expecting the same from the companies they purchase from.

Burger King aren't intending to sell burgers with this campaign, they are selling a philosophy, one that consumers today align with. 

While this campaign will polarise, its undeniably memorable, and isn’t that perhaps the biggest challenge for brands today? Standing out from the noise and capturing people’s attention. 

Mia Fileman, Idiello

It’s a brand differentiator

Yes, a marketing campaign like this is something that can certainly work. Why? Because it is helping create a stronger brand identity around Burger King. And how is it doing this? By finding an area where it can differentiate itself from its competitors.

Back in 2018, there was a report published by Nielson, which showed that young adults are willing to pay more for food that is made with natural ingredients.

What Burger King is doing is playing to this audience, encouraging them to eat at their outlets over, say, McDonalds. The popularity of videos showing McDonalds burgers that somewhat refuse to decay will also play in Burger King's favour as a more natural option, and is probably why they launched this campaign. 

What Burger King is doing is playing to this audience, encouraging them to eat at their outlets over, say, McDonalds. 
Joy Corkery, Latana

The message gets cut through

The objective of this creative was to deliberately shock in order to get people talking and it has 100% achieved that objective.

Despite the "ick factor" of the visuals, the message of "no artificial preservatives" cuts through and is unforgettable. In the world of food advertising where romancing the food and hero food shots are sacrosanct, this breaks every rule in the book and is incredibly brave. Will it win awards? Yes. Will it sell more burgers? I am going to also say yes. 

Will it win awards? Yes. Will it sell more burgers? I am going to also say yes. 

In a world where people are demanding cleaner food and more transparency from brands, this is very on trend. In the long term it will be the message of "no artificial preservatives" that is remembered rather than the shocking advertising - and this is what will add value to the Burger King brand over time.

Fergus Kibble,  FORWARD Agency

Bold and Brilliant

As a marketer, I love this campaign.

We're all aware of the viral video of a McDonalds burger that didn't rot, solidifying a common view that it was because the burger contained too many preservatives and wasn't 'real' food.

So even if you only saw the still image of the Whopper with mould on it, you know straight away what they're trying to say: "our food is real food." The video has a classic cinematic feel to it due to the high-quality production and the soundtrack.

I can't think of a better way to communicate their decision not to use artificial preservatives - get LOTS of attention and convey the message without us having to pay any attention to the details.

This was a bold move, and (I think) a brilliant campaign.

Carma Levene, www.carma.social

Spurs creative from other brands too

Yes, I think it’s brilliant.

Fast food has had a bad rep about the additives and preservatives, plus we have all seen the Maccas burgers and chips 40 years later looking exactly the same!

I also love the creative responses from some of the other brands. I think Nandos did one about their burgers only lasting 3-4 mins on a plate which was great!

Nandos did one about their burgers only lasting 3-4 mins on a plate which was great!
Jules Brooke, Handle Your Own PR

Reframes the narrative

I think the ad is brilliant, it reframes the narrative around an entire industry centred around food that does not go stale, which is largely considered harmful to our health.

It is provocative, memorable and a step forward towards a demographic willing to pay a little bit more for 'better' fast food.  After the McDonald's videos going viral with the burger patties not decomposing, this certainly will remain front of mind too!

Sharon Latour, Marketing Bee 

Visually tells you what they sell is real

I actually saw that ad and thought it was great.

I think it works. The first thing I thought was that it was a subtle jab at McDonald's and the hype before that their burgers don't rot. So straightaway you think about their competitor and how they are positioning themselves differently, which is more health conscious. 

I think the timing is good as well with the recent release of their plant-based burgers.  They are visually telling a story that what they sell is real.  You get it without even needing to hear what they are saying. 

They are visually telling a story that what they sell is real.  You get it without even needing to hear what they are saying. 
Heather Porter, websitelove.com.au

2. IN THE ‘NO’, ‘NAH’, ‘MAYBE NOT’ CORNER

Might have missed the mark

When I look at any marketing communications I try and figure out who the target audience is and what's the objective.  For this, if the objective was to sell more burgers, it doesn't hit the mark. 

...if the objective was to sell more burgers, it doesn't hit the mark.

If the objective was to get media, advertising professionals and social media talking, then it's worked... and you know CANNES is just around the corner.

To really drive the point home with consumer, it would be better to have it side by side with a competitor’s burger and compare/contrast the difference. That could have then rolled out to a larger series of content... much like "will it blend?"; "will it mould?". I could then imagine teenagers doing their own experiments.

Sarah McIntyre, Bright Inbound Marketing

"Yes" and "No"

This is a whopper of a marketing call, put it that way.

Burger King's rapidly deteriorating burger is used to display their commitment to using no artificial preservatives, but I'm not certain the effect is as positive as they hoped - at least not in the short term.

While the move is undoubtedly made in good faith and shows Burger King's desire to put their customer's health needs first, humans are visual creatures. In fact, the human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text, according to recent studies.

And so, the image of a blackened and mouldy burger may well turn off more people than tantalise.

And so, the image of a blackened and mouldy burger may well turn off more people than tantalise.

Think of it this way, you remember visceral ads of high-speed car crashes for a reason. Made by government agencies, these ads serve as a warning of what may happen when you speed.

These images stick with you. They serve their purpose as you quickly push them away, reminding you of the dangers of speeding.

Has Burger King created the same visceral process?

Already, Twitter users are describing seeing the ad, being struck by how powerful it is, but no longer wanting to eat Burger King that day.

Here's the catch though, I believe this will be a marketing masterstroke in the long-term.

Consumers are moving towards a more sustainable attitude to the food they eat, and this aligns well with those motives.

As a point of difference, a deteriorating Whopper ends up looking better than the McDonald's burgers that have survived unscathed for years.

So, while short-term sales may slow, I think Burger King has made a creative and bold decision that will place them at the forefront of the health-conscious revolution taking place in the fast food industry.

Alexander Porter, SearchItLocal

The end doesn’t always justify the means

There are two schools of thought for this campaign.

The first would be - "well hey, it has everyone talking about it, so, therefore, in terms of earned media, it has absolutely trounced it".

And sure, this is right to a large extent. We are discussing it and it has made a splash, but is negative publicity good publicity? I would argue this is not. In fact, believing that all publicity is good publicity holds only as an argument if you only look for eyeball metrics and choose to believe that interest leads to intent. 

In fact, believing that all publicity is good publicity holds only as an argument if you only look for eyeball metrics and choose to believe that interest leads to intent.

In the realm of FMCG where visual impact is critical, showing potential consumers decaying food will inevitably - at first - create a negative reaction. In this age where social media is alight with lifestyle and food photos, a photo of mouldy food is not a winner.

This gives rise to the second school of thought - people do not always want to know behind the scenes, they just want to know the outcome.

The second school of thought is that end does not always justify the means. That is, sometimes you need to concentrate on the aspect of what you are giving people and what they derive from it at a key point in time, not necessarily show the aspects that get you there.  For example, The Red Cross Blood Service does not show you photos of a needle going into a donor’s arm, they show you the happy, healthy recipient. The benefit for the audience is they see a healthy recipient and know they contributed. That is the takeout.

When it comes to food, telling people it is free from preservatives should be enough, as people want to recall an image of a fresh, tasty looking meal, they do not want to see a decaying meal at the point where they are thinking about their hunger. It's just a sure-fire way to get people thinking about things they never have before, but not necessarily for the good. 

When it comes to food, telling people it is free from preservatives should be enough, as people want to recall an image of a fresh, tasty looking meal... 
Hamish Anderson, Mesh Consulting

Shock tactics aren't enough

This campaign for Burger King is both psychologically and strategically. 

Firstly, promoting good health is lip service from a product that has high calories, refined processed flour, high carbs and high fat content. Preservatives aren’t enough of a story for a brand of this type. People don’t buy this kind of food for these reasons. I can imagine a group of people in research raised the preservatives as a barrier to purchase, but truthfully there are a whole lot of other reasons too, and they can’t be isolated like this.

In terms of the psychology, in my experience, those brands that resort to shock tactics that make us feel disgusted are neurologically anchoring the feeling of disgust with that brand which is not going to have a positive impact at the time of purchase decision making. It may be memorable, but people will have a visceral reaction to the image of the mould and associate that with taste. 

...brands that resort to shock tactics that make us feel disgusted are neurologically anchoring the feeling of disgust with that brand... 

Their existing hard core audience may not care, as they are already psychologically anchored with the positive reasons they buy the brand and that is likely stronger than the new experience of disgust (this is called 'Collapsing the Anchor'), but new customers are unlikely to switch as this would be the dominant memory with nothing else in place.

Being grossed out by a brand is not a good way to encourage taste, but is certainly memorable...but memorability is not enough.

Successful food category brands have spent decades getting sensory marketing right and there is valid science behind the more typical ‘bite and smile’ demonstrations, as opposed to this disgusting and repulsive representation of a brand.

Just ask Professor Aradhna Krishna of the Sensory Marketing Laboratory at the University of Michigan - even the position of a fork next to an image of cake increases appetite appeal, or other subconscious drivers like this, to successfully increase trial and purchase. This Burger King campaign is going against a lot of this proven science which is misguided for a food product. 

...even the position of a fork next to an image of cake increases appetite appeal, or other subconscious drivers like this, to successfully increase trial and purchase. 

Shock tactics are not enough in 2020.

Anne Miles, Suits&Sneakers

"Misses the mark"

While I like the messaging and think the removal of artificial preservatives is imperative for our diets, the imagery misses the mark for me. It's successful in that you won't soon forget that they've changed the ingredients, but the shot of a furry, mouldy burger is hardly going to have you running to your nearest Burger King.

I'd liken it to the fact that people want to eat free-range chicken to feel better about their choices, but they don't want to see a happy little chook running around a field in the advertising for the product. We, as humans, like to disconnect from the process of how our food gets from its natural state to our stomachs (or in this case, what happens after the fact). 

We, as humans, like to disconnect from the process of how our food gets from its natural state to our stomachs (or in this case, what happens after the fact). 
Sarah McAlpine SMAC Creative

Not the best move

At the end of the day, publicity stunts that touch on newsworthy values of ‘conflict’, ‘novelty’ and ‘bizarre’ are very effective in getting airtime. They have done this very well and now have their new direction and campaign in the spotlight. So, from that perspective, it has been very successful and a great free/earned media example.

The question around the benefit or potential negative impact of this airtime is another question. In my opinion, I don’t think it was the best move. I feel they took the concept too far and the extent and graphic nature of the imagery will most definitely turn some people off. 

...they took the concept too far and the extent and graphic nature of the imagery will most definitely turn some people off.

In addition, I would ask whether the target market cares THAT much about no artificial preservatives? It is pretty clear that with or without preservatives a Whopper from Burger King sure aint healthy and I don’t think the lack of artificial preservatives will entice a new audience of health conscious consumers to get their hands on this burger – with or without mould.

Scott Bidmead, Mead Media

3. My turn…

As compelling as these pro-rot arguments are, it’s a definite 'no' from me.

With all this talk of clever branding and memorability, it comes down to a simple premise. If it looks revolting, I don’t want to eat it. And (I heartily agree with YOU Anne!) the "shot of a furry, mouldy burger" is forever etched in my brain and something I do not want to shove in my cake hole.

Simple.

If I’m trying to sell a home, it’s unlikely to sell (for the asking price) if it looks like a frat house after an all-night bender. And while it’s on trend to show things in their natural state, I’m of the opinion that it’s better to show things in their best light. (Hence why we have Instagram filters, fake tan and teeth whiteners.) 

And while it’s on trend to show things in their natural state, I’m of the opinion that it’s better to show things in their best light. (Hence why we have Instagram filters, fake tan and teeth whiteners.)

Perhaps it makes more sense to show the natural ingredients that go into every burger, rather than the result of days of leaving it out of the fridge. Or suggest leaving that Maccas burger in the kids’ playroom with the rest of their toys since it’s made from the same stuff. There are of other ideas that could also get cut through, without having the ability to revolt your customer base.

What do you think?

Have your say in the comments below.