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Saddled with a lackluster ad campaign and competing against McDonald's and Burger King's highly successful summer promotions, Hardee's Food Systems is sidelining the wacky Hardee's Girls in favor of more hard-hitting retail spots.

A new TV campaign features a Hardee's mobile kitchen pulling up to fast-food competitors including McDonald's Corp., Burger King Corp. and KFC Corp. to issue price and quality challenges.

"There's nothing like this over there," says a woman as she points to McDonald's in a spot titled "Ultimate Challenge," running since July 4. The commercial promotes Hardee's Ultimate Bacon Cheeseburger.

Two more spots began running last weekend. "Value Challenge" tries to electrify Hardee's 2-month-old Choice Values menu, which Exec VP-Marketing Jerry Gramaglia said has been relatively slow to catch on. "When other chains first come out with value menus, [success] doesn't happen overnight."

Mr. Gramaglia estimated 20% of Hardee's lunch and dinner sales now come from Choice Values purchases. But its counterpart accounts for 44% of total sales at McDonald's, where the Extra Value Menu has been in place for more than three years.

"McDonald's does not have a chicken filet sandwich for 99 cents," says a woman in the "Value Challenge" spot.

The third commercial, "Big Deluxe Challenge," pits Hardee's 99 cent cheeseburger against Burger King's Whopper. The spot acts as a pre-emptive strike against Burger King's more product-centered repositioning campaign from Ammirati & Puris/Lintas, New York, set to break before Labor Day.

Heavy competition from family-movie promotions-Burger King with "The Lion King" and McDonald's with "The Flintstones"-have contributed to what Mr. Gramaglia termed "soft" sales for Hardee's as-yet-unreported second quarter.

That will mark Hardee's second tough quarter in a row; systemwide sales for the first quarter dipped 1.7%, to $1.08 billion, compared with the year-earlier period.

Second-quarter U.S. sales rose 5% at McDonald's.

In February, new agency Deutsch, New York, unveiled the three elderly Hardee's Girls as the spokeswomen for the chain's new image campaign. A series of spots showed the women traveling cross country, eating at Hardee's and appearing on talk shows with Joan Rivers and Regis Philbin.

"I'm not sure they're setting the world on fire," Mr. Gramaglia said of the Hardee's Girls.

Franchisees agreed.

"Customers I talked to didn't like them," said Kris Thomas, marketing manager at 31-unit franchisee Doro, Eau Claire, Wis. "It seems like we've been missing part of our target audience-young people."

But the lackluster response to the Hardee's Girls apparently doesn't translate to Deutsch-yet. Mr. Gramaglia said franchisees are very pleased with the new ad strategy.

And agency CEO Donny Deutsch said he got a standing ovation last week when he presented the next four months' advertising to franchisees.

Melanie Wells contributed to this story.

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