Ad Review Rating: 3 1/2 stars BK FINALLY CATCHES FIRE WITH AMMIRATI'S QUIRKY ADS

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According to statistics compiled by the Burger King Corp., "There are 1,024 possible ways to order a Whopper sandwich."

Or, roughly, one for every Burger King ad campaign of the past 10 years. In that span, the fast-food chain has had more marketing VPs than George Steinbrenner has had managers-and approximately the same number of agencies as the Department of Health & Human Services.

It has been a decade of turmoil, dislocation and desperate thrashing about. It has been a decade that saw the Whopper itself downplayed in favor of such fare as the veal parmigiana sandwich. It has been a decade of horrible management and horrible advertising yielding horrible results.

But now, with the ascension of Ammirati & Puris/Lintas, New York (agency No. 5), and the appearance of client stability, the company at last seems to have come to terms with itself. It is not McDonald's, and is never going to be. It is not home cookin'. It is not Veal Parmigiana King.

It is the No. 2 burger joint, where they flame-broil, not fry.

"Who decided at what point that it was acceptable to fry a burger?" asks an ordinary looking guy to open one of five charming, hardworking new spots. "This goes against millions of years of evolutionary instinct. I'm sorry," he says, as he walks away from the camera, gesturing impatiently, "but burgers taste best cooked over an open flame. That's how the caveman did it. That's how Dad did it. That's how Burger King does it."

As he mentions cavemen, the scene is interrupted with a goofy, b&w shot of three prehistoric meat eaters. When he says open flame, there's a cut to a cartoon flamethrower. When he refers to Dad, we see a home-movie clip of Dad, poised over his grill, circa 1960. The technique, borrowed from the HBO sitcom "Dream On," is employed to great effect in all five spots.

"Now," he continues, "take the Whopper: a big hunk of beef cooked over actual fire. Only 99 cents. Millions of years after the first burger, it's still only 99 cents. That's gotta be pretty close to what it cost back then."

Then, the tagline: "Burger King. Get your burger's worth."

Which, at long last, Burger King certainly has done with these eccentric, but brand-centric, new monologues. Another spot features a world-weary businessman, ruminating on the meaning of $2.99. Another is a perplexed husband, whose marriage is hanging by a tether because he noticed Burger King values but not his wife's new haircut. All five convey the traditional Burger King irreverence, minus the heavy-handed Attitude of the late, unlamented BK TeeVee campaign.

When two years ago fast-talking MTV sportscaster Dan Cortese surfaced in that curious melding of retail and image advertising, it marked the chain's first coherent strategy in years, essentially repositioning Burger King as the fast- food place for teen-agers. Alas, the teen-agers who represent fast-food's biggest customer base didn't particularly love that place and adult customers especially didn't love the smart alecky Cortese.

So comes now Ammirati work, which, without necessarily trying to, achieves everything that BK TeeVee attempted. And more.

The offbeat characterizations, oblique camera angles and fanciful intercutting will appeal to the nonlinear-TV generation-without repelling adults. Meantime, the spots address the so-called "value marketing" that has driven the category for two years. Recognizing that a $1.89 cheeseburger meal does nothing for brand building, the campaign compares McDonald's and BK patty for patty, challenging consumers to rethink their calculus of value. (While, of course, still trumpeting the $1.89 cheeseburger meal.)

Most of all, these spots reflect the marketer's rediscovered focus. During the past feckless 10 years, the constant casting about for the pricing/menu/image Holy Grail bespoke-and exacerbated-a poverty of purpose. Of late the company had even forsaken grilled-vs.-fried, a selling proposition with equity and potency that nonetheless lost its edge when The Home of the Whopper flirted with being Burger 'n' Damn Near Everything Else King.

No more. That king is dead. Long live the king.

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