2008 Creativity Award Winner: Burger King: Whopper Freakout

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The premise of the "Whopper Freakout" campaign is as enchanting as it is perverse: Burger King employees claim corporate overlords have stricken the belly buster from the menu one day so Academy Award-nominated director Henry-Alex Rubin (Murderball) can document fast food junkies twitching and spewing when they find they can't have it their way. Day two of the experiment saw competitors' sandwiches replace the Whopper and again, hungry fans got riled up and professed their love, before the King himself appeared to make things right. The results of the big BK joke contributed to an eight-minute webfilm full of brand evangelism, focus group-y responses ("Level of 1-10, how pissed would you say you were...?"), bewilderment and good old fashioned hunger-induced American crankiness. Customers storm back to the counter demanding their beloved Whoppers when they realize they've been served Big Macs or Wendy's burgers, only to have the counter attendants remind them that BK doesn't serve "fried" burgers. Other more wistful BK-goers give folksy Whopper-tinged anecdotes about family bonding and passage into manhood.

The candid camera approach Crispin, Porter + Bogusky honed with its lauded Truth work appears to have succeeded. IAG Research found recall of the campaign to be the highest it's seen in its six-year history. Crispin reports over one million visits to the microsite with an average logged time of 8:33 and over four million finished video views, meaning most visitors watched several times. Multiple spoofs emerged, including "Ghetto Freakout," an R-rated take on the campaign which clocked over 3 million views on YouTube. More importantly, America continued to reach for the Whopper—Burger King's same-store sales numbers were up, improving 4.5 percent on 2006 numbers.

Q&A with CP+B Executive Creative Director Rob Reilly

What brief did you get from Burger King? Where did it go from there?

Reilly: We wanted to tell people and prove that the Whopper was still America's favorite. That was the brief within the 50th anniversary brief. But we didn't want to come off as chest pounding, so one of the notions was to take it off the menu and see if people would care. The theme became Whopper deprivation. We loved the guts of it. We presented "Whopper Freakout" as "Well, if you really want to prove this, put your money where your mouth is and let's take it off the menu and film natural reactions from people." There was potentially a lot to lose, too.

Yeah, holding up Burger King eaters as objects of derision might have a negative impact. How was that factored in?

Reilly: We knew technically we could pull it off, but this is really a social experiment, that's the new ground we're breaking, using a social experiment as marketing. There's no fake dialogue, no fake customers. We were really testing this: If you deprive people of a thing they love, even down to a hamburger, will they react with a thing that's visceral? We knew we had a [director] who knew serious subjects; he played it straight and wasn't trying to make anyone laugh. Online, there was no trick, no game; there wasn't necessarily an interactive component. People made their own, everything from a Michael Jackson version to "Ghetto Freakout."

You guys had to have planted some of those spoofs.

Reilly: No! We did nothing. We knew potentially people might do their own versions, and this had the potential because the construction of it was fairly simple. But we didn't make any of them, and we didn't seed anything. We were so careful to keep this pure. This is a flagship product.

Other than the massive initial vote of confidence, what did Burger King bring to the creative process during this job?

Reilly: There were times when we were shooting this thing, we were all hiding in the trailer and I was cringing, screaming "Pull the plug," and the client was saying "No! Go for it." If we had stopped when I said to stop we wouldn't have very interesting material. Burger King continually pushes us in the right directions, being competitive and not being afraid to stand up and say, "We have a superior product, let's go after the competition."

In your opinion, what role does creativity play today when it comes to building a brand?

Reilly: We've got a nice thing going with our consumers if they expect Burger King to push the limit when it comes to product. I think creativity now is how they continue to innovate with their product and packaging, continue to come up with new things, new ways to market, and having a couple of these equities we can continue to go back to, the King, "Have It Your Way," the Whopper. We're able to use those throughout the year, but they're always surrounded by new things.

Check out more of the 2008 Creativity Award winners.
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