Sexy ads haven't hurt, either. Mr. Puzder credits the infamous Paris Hilton car-washing commercial with much of Carl's Jr.'s brand awareness outside of the Western U.S. Last year, a TV spot featuring a comely schoolmarm raised the hackles of a teachers union, and Carl's Jr. pulled the spot. Mr. Puzder, an attorney, said it would have been better to use a librarian.
Lately, the brands' ads seem to be getting away from sex, focusing instead on quality, with a "fake restaurant" spot that shows customers duped into paying $14 or more for a Carl's Jr. burger. The next round of media for Hardee's, meanwhile, will tout "breakfast as big as our burgers," but a spot for the Carl's Jr. hand-scooped milkshake, slated for September, is sure to get tongues wagging again.
The two regional chains have posted some of the industry's best same-store sales since Mr. Puzder, a slim, athletic-looking 58, took over the company in 2000. CKE Restaurants, the chains' parent company, earlier this week released same-store sales for the year to date, up 2.5% for the year for both chains, and up 5.2% for both chains from mid-June through mid-July.
Mr. Puzder spoke to Advertising Age about his company's same-store sales gains, why 99-cent burgers are "garbage" and, of course, those ads.
Ad Age: Tell me about the role of sex in your ads.
Mr. Puzder: We do these ads where it fits in. Paris at the time, her big thing was "That's hot." It turned out to be maybe the most successful ad of the decade -- maybe for anybody. We're not opposed to using sex in ads, but we like for it have something to do with the product we're trying to promote.
Ad Age: But that same concept backfired last summer with the schoolteacher. What happened there?
Mr. Puzder: She should have been a librarian. Then we wouldn't have had to pull the ad. We got a lot of calls and e-mails from teachers who really liked it, but another group had been criticized because of an abuse case when the teacher went off with a student, and they aggressively [came after us]. ... We set ourselves up for an attack, and that was a mistake. I was on Bill O'Reilly defending the Paris ad, but to go on there and fight teachers was a different story.
Ad Age: But some of that's necessary to reach your core, right?
Mr. Puzder: We spend $80 million on Carl's Jr., $80 million on Hardee's, and McDonald's [spends] $800 million. I can't do "I'm lovin' it." Everybody's a-loving it. You watch a Lakers game, you maybe see our ads once or twice if we're lucky. But these other brands, Burger King has a $400 million budget [$275 million in 2007, according to TNS Media Intelligence]. They can run two to three times. We need to be near the edge. You need to remember our ads, so it's got to be close to the edge, and it's going to offend some people.
Ad Age: To what do you credit your same-store sales gains?
Mr. Puzder: When everybody goes one way, we go the other. Two or three years ago, investors were saying you've got to sell salads and applesauce. We said, "To hell with that, we're going to sell the Monster Thickburger," and our sales went very, very well. This year everybody is doing 99-cent double cheeseburgers, and quite honestly, go to the grocery store and buy the meat and the buns and the condiments and you don't pay rent, utilities, labor. You can't make a decent burger for 99 cents. People are looking to sell this garbage and trying to out-garbage each other.
Ad Age: You've also stayed away from the health and wellness positioning that's been a big part of your competitors' messaging in the past year. Why don't you have more healthy products on the menu?
Mr. Puzder: I think everyone has the responsibility to do the right thing, and we make the products available. My job is not to tell you what to eat, but figure out what you want to eat and offer it to you. I can tell you from our sales, it's not the ultra-healthy no-taste food. At Hardee's we sell 130 to 150 Thickburgers a day per restaurant and probably two salads. But they're there. I think if we fried the salads, they would sell more.