Cooked Up

When I first came to the US about 25 years ago, I found American football to be a dumb, thuggish game. Coming from the world of rugby and “real” football i.e., the kind you play with your feet, the start-stop of American football and all the padding seemed more like theatrics than sport.

And then I had a eureka moment. I was watching Denver play Washington and it suddenly hit me: football is like violent chess. Two coaches (and their assistants) analyzing every play that the opposition makes and trying to learn their strengths and weaknesses as the game unfolds. Once I saw the intellectual aspect of the game, my experience completely changed: I started to love football.

But, football being football (3+ hours per game…), it was chewing up too much time of a weekend that I would rather put elsewhere and I stopped regularly watching some years back. – Until this year, when my wife got a taste for the game and we started watching together.

One thing that had not changed for me: how annoying it is to see a receiver drop a pass because he’s too busy envisioning the highlight reel of his impending touchdown.

For as long as I have been an employer I have told my staff: any job is open to you, but first you have to do the one you were hired to do. (I developed this policy in response to a young hire, who still might be the smartest person that ever worked for me but was so caught-up in telling the CEO how better he could do his job that he was consistently making dumb mistakes in his actual duties.)

In the same way, watching a talented, highly paid NFL receiver drop a pass that hits him in the hands because he appears to be already visualizing the dance he is going to do in the end-zone is beyond frustrating.

This came to mind when I saw the Burger King ad that ran on Monday for International Women’s Day. For those who missed it, the full-page version they ran in the NY Times had a giant headline that read, “Women Belong in the Kitchen.” The copy then went on to say that what they were actually talking about was professional kitchens and lamenting that women are poorly represented in the pantheon of fine culinary arts. This is true and it needs to change, but it felt like Burger King and its agency were much more interested in a controversial headline than moving the conversation down the road. To double-down, they also ran the same headline as a standalone tweet, with the explainer in a follow-on.

Burger King has a bit of a history in this arena that began when Crispin Porter Bogusky was their agency. CPB is perhaps the only ad agency I will ever talk trash about beyond the walls of Idea Engineering. They, for a while, were wildly successful – as far as making money was concerned, but time and again they chose entertainment over moving the needle for the client. Just one example was convincing the, up until then, exalted Director of US marketing for Volkswagen to spearhead changing the name of Volkswagen Golf back to Rabbit – for zero good reasons and an about-face on VW’s worldwide brand evolution. The renaming and the subsequently pilloried Director did not survive long. Many CBP ads were famous – sadly more so than the client, the product and, most importantly, the sale. It suggested where CPB’s priorities lay. And the steady stream of clients toward the exit suggests that they felt the same way.

This recent Burger King effort did not have CPB's fingerprints on it, but it seems like BK can’t help themselves. Their ads always choose provocation over positive client experience. They want Burger King to look cool over you feeling cool for choosing them. That’s actually a big difference that the best in the game, e.g. Apple, Target, understand well.

Burger King’s defense was some lame excuse that they were misunderstood and were using the headline to draw attention to the issue.

I would point out that if a company posted a similar ad with the headline, “Black People Belong in the Kitchen” with a follow-up saying that black people are similarly under-represented in the top-tiers of haute-cuisine, I’m sure the CMO of Burger King would be piling on the resulting justifiably outraged tweetstorm.

To be clear: both are imbecilically insulting bad ideas. Using tired and hackneyed insults as clickbait is as lazy and insensitive as it is sophomoric and untalented.

The highlight reel is not the goal. Social change is the goal. I have nothing, per se, against funny ads or musical ads or whatever, but those decisions should only come while pursuing the route to the most effective message. When the decision to be “funny” or “provocative” comes first, then that becomes the primary goal and effectiveness and propriety slide in priority. When people creating social marketing messaging are so caught up in being the superstar and making it about how clever they are, the under-represented party ends up paying the price because the focus ends up in the wrong place.

Next time, BK, if you truly want to pursue social change, just catch the ball, run it up the field and lay off the self-worshiping dance. It’s less sexy, but in the end the team wins.

– Simon Dixon

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