A Penitent TV Campaign That Backfires

By Published on .

Client: Hardee's
Agency: Mendelsohn/Zien, Los Angeles
Star Rating: 1.5

Remember the New Nixon?

He was supposed to replace the devious, bitter and paranoiac old Nixon. And, sure enough, he did. The new Nixon was

Is it really a good idea for an ad to focus on the nauseating stench of the fast-food cooking process?
devious, bitter, paranoiac -- and criminal. He resigned in disgrace just ahead of impeachment for high crimes and misdemeanors.

A cautionary tale
We mention this not to reopen old wounds but as a cautionary tale about believing the tiger when he claims to have changed his stripes. "This is Not Your Father's Oldsmobile" was not only an implicit confession to years of automotive boredom, it was a transparently premature claim of latter-day excitement.

United Airlines' "Rising" was similarly confessional, and -- as events have unfolded -- even more ridiculously inaccurate.

Skeptical consumer
In theory, acknowledgement of past weaknesses should be so disarmingly candid as to enhance credibility. Long experience with the publicly penitent, however, has taught consumers to be skeptical. It's often far more instructive to look at the slogan employed immediately before the disarmingly candid declaration of transformation. Arthur Andersen's, for instance, was "Helping in Ways You Never Imagined."

Tricky Dick's was "Nixon's the One."

This brings us to Hardee's, the burger joint that evolved -- or devolved -- into a long-struggling burger and

chicken and roast beef and biscuit 'n' gravy joint. So now -- in an act desperation or inspiration, heroism or commercial suicide -- the chain is coming clean.

Not, "Golly, we lost our focus a little bit but, folks, we're back!" coming clean. More like: "Hardee's: We no longer, like, totally reek!" coming clean.

Nauseating stench
And we speak not figuratively. A 30-second spot from Mendelsohn/Zien, Los Angeles, focuses on Hardee's longstanding problems with -- we swear to God -- nauseating stench. The spot shows an 18-year-old ex-customer who recalls, with pained facial expressions, his total disgust over his last Hardee's meal.

"The whole place just smells like fried chicken," he says, "like chicken, frying chicken. So I bite into the burger and, dude, it was just weird. I'm eating the burger and smelling the chicken."

He does not say whether he actually puked, but based on his grimaces, don't bet against it. Then -- in a magnificent bit of food photography -- the ad reveals what will make the old, putrid Hardee's into the new, appetizing Hardee's: Thickburger, which is a thick burger. And as you'd expect in a spot from the agency that turned Carl's Jr. around by focusing on that chain's thick, juicy burgers, the thing looks pretty enticing.

"Introducing Thickburger and no fried chicken," the voice-over says. "Instead of trying to make a lot of things good, we're going to make one thing great."

More items, not less?
A few problems here. The first is the tiger's stripes situation; history does not augur well. Secondly, focus is all well and good, but fast-food consumers demand menu variety -- not the opposite. And, finally, the majority of Hardee's young core customers who had never really given much thought to the odor issue now will be able to concentrate on little else.

The advertiser has invited the consumer to smell a rat, and, verily, the consumer will.

Hand it to Hardee's -- as advertised, they aren't chicken. But their chances of succeeding really stink.

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