Checkers tries cartoon heroine to break clutter

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Checkers Drive-In Restaurants this week introduces a racy new animated campaign in an effort to break through the clutter of fast-food advertising.

The company, operator of 936 burger outlets under the Checkers and Rally's banners, has recently focused on fresh food in its advertising. But that's not enough to stand out from big-spending competitors such as McDonald's Corp. and Burger King Corp., said VP-Marketing Richard Turer.

Starting Jan. 6, the company, which uses the same advertising for both restaurant chains, will begin its 2000 campaign with a 30-second TV spot that "will have people talking around the water cooler," Mr. Turer said.

The estimated $15 million campaign from Crispin Porter & Bogusky, Miami, uses trendy Japanese-style animation, and introduces a new spokescharacter: a twentysomething "powerchick" named Holly.

TARGETS YOUNG MALES

The ad is squarely targeted at so-called heavy fast-food users, males 18 to 24.

The first execution in the campaign features the quest of Holly -- who lives in an alternative universe -- for fuel. The viewer is led to believe the fuel is for her souped-up, 1970s-style car, but it's really for her. The frenzied journey takes her to a Checkers or Rally's outlet. "Only Checkers or Rally's has the fuel she seeks," Mr. Turer said.

The theme line: "High performance. Human fuel."

The spot introduces a new limited-time offer -- a quarter-pound bacon cheeseburger for 99›. The sandwich represents the chain's new focus on big portions and bold tastes.

At the same time, the chain is launching fries served with chili and cheese.

NEW MANAGEMENT TEAM

This comes as the company, which has experienced flat sales for the past several years, has a new management team at the helm. Checkers and Rally's operated under separate ownerships until their merger in August.

Agency President Jeff Hicks said his shop was asked by the chain to "turn this business on its head."

Checkers didn't see a need for enlisting a new agency, Mr. Turer said, but rather wanted to stick with Crispin, which won the account two years ago.

"There were discussions that we had managed them too tightly," he said. "After two years of flat sales, both Crispin and the company were frustrated with the overall performance."

The animation idea emerged last summer after franchisees, agency executives and company executives reviewed all ads created for the chain in the past two years.

FAST-CAR THEME

Fast cars will be the theme throughout the chain going forward. All point-of-purchase material will reflect the 1970s car culture. Menu boards will be changed, as will employee uniforms.

The campaign will include new TV commercials to air in some 18 spot markets during the course of the year, backed by radio and outdoor.

The chains do business primarily along the East Coast, in the Southeast and the Midwest. According to Technomic, Checkers was No. 66 in its top 100 restaurant listing, posting $319 million in sales in 1998 before the merger. Rally's was close behind it at No. 69, with 1998 sales of $300 million.

Advertising is just part of the work ahead for the chains, Mr. Turer said. "In order to get a good return on investment on any ad campaign, you need to make sure you get stores operating well."

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