“I Asked for Extra Mould on Mine!” The Ad Industry’s Flaming Hot Takes on ‘Moldy Whopper’

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Burger King’s stunt has split opinion but everyone’s talking about it, writes Laura Swinton
“I Asked for Extra Mould on Mine!”  The Ad Industry’s Flaming Hot Takes on ‘Moldy Whopper’

Yesterday, Burger King dropped the ‘Moldy Whopper’, a campaign designed to trigger one of our most hardwired disgust responses while communicating a very positive message for the brand. Its flagship burger, The Whopper, is now created (in most of Europe and some of the US) with zero artificial ingredients – which means that, unlike that of its big, clown-themed competitor, the Whopper goes mouldy and decomposes.

At a time when people are more switched on about the contents of their food – and following some popular news stories in 2019 that showed McDonald’s burgers that had stayed closed to pristine for 10 years (Iceland) and 20 years (Utah) – it seemed like a perfect time for the punchy fast food chain to show off its natural credentials. To that end, they (together with the three agencies that individually pitched the idea over the past three years, Publicis Romania/Spain, INGO Sweden and DAVID Miami), created a campaign that sees the burger go putrid over 30 days. There’s a time lapse video and some intriguing close-up photography that turn the mouldy burgers into alien art.

And, woof. Has this campaign got people talking, or what?

The ad industry has been debating the campaign in offices and across social media. Outside the bubble, though, while the campaign has proven to be a hit with mainstream consumer press, there’s uncertainty about whether the work will have the desired effect with the public. After all, a visceral aversion to rotten food is a protective reaction that we’ve evolved over millennia. Can clever creative supersede that?


“The bravest and most creative pack-shot in advertising history. Perhaps.”

These days, creative-turned-director Ed Morris is usually reluctant to come out for or against a piece of advertising creative. But with Burger King being as brave as creatives so often wish clients were, he’s been moved to comment. In a sector where the product is so often primped and plumped by food stylists, it takes guts to show one’s products in a less-than-appealing light. He reckons the still element of the campaign is “the bravest and most creative pack-shot in advertising history. Perhaps.”

“I don’t comment on advertising much any more but I think that Burger King’s mouldy ad is probably the best and bravest thing to have run in the last 20 years. I don’t know how you would beat it. It’s an incredibly compelling truth laid bare as bare can be,” he says. “It’s a perfect example of the appropriation of creativity in advertising for competitive advantage. As far as ads go it’s a flaming Whopper.”

That bravery is something that Chuck McBride, founder and CCO of San Francisco-based agency Cutwater, also admires. “I really liked how brave it was to show a rotting burger as a way to talk about no artificial ingredients or preservatives,” he says.

Creatively the campaign has got a lot of fans. The strength and timeliness of the idea is reflected in the fact that Burger King was approached on three separate occasions by three different agencies with the idea.

Mark Denton is a creative and director who says the ad immediately stood out to him “It’s like a proper piece of advertising (at last)... without any unnecessary box-ticking except the one marked ‘GOOD IDEA’.”

“I do hope that it was created in the first place as a way to sell more burgers as opposed the cleaning up on the awards circuit but either way they’ve ended up with a stonking advert. Only time will tell if it’s a commercial success (I don’t care if it wins a trophy),” says Mark, who says that seeing the ad did make him consider getting a cheeky Whopper.


Gut Reactions

On the flip side, there are those who wonder whether tying the product to an image that we’re programmed to have a strong aversion to is a great direction to take in the long term.

“I just can’t unsee the disgusting moudly image of a Whopper. It makes me wretch just thinking about it. I've just belched again,” writes Brothers & Sisters CEO Matt Charlton for LBB, whilst acknowledging the intellectual appeal of the idea.

In the wider world, where people are time poor and advertising needs to compete with so much more in terms of media, entertainment, personal worries and more… that gut reaction counts. Creative director Nathalie Gordon pondered on Twitter whether ‘Sue from Hull’ will see the ad in quite the same way as ‘Tom, Dick, and Harry’ on an awards jury. And our straw poll with non-industry friends and relatives revealed that at least half could not get over the initial emotive response, despite fully understanding the idea.

“People outside of the industry won’t see the same ad as us. They will literally see the same thing but they won’t see or hear or know of the surrounding commentary, rationale, insight, discussion and head-fuck-of-our-jobs, all of which helps us inform our opinions versus the opinions of real people,” says Nathalie after we reach out to her. “In print, real people will see a mouldy burger, they might not even read the copy – all they will take out is ‘mouldy burger’. In TV/online they will likely understand a lot more but even if they watch the whole thing, I still believe their main take out is ‘mouldy burger’. Consumers aren’t dumb by any means - they just don’t work as hard as we do to understand ads. We care. They don’t.”


What Is Effective Marketing, Anyway?

Ultimately the debate comes down to effectiveness – what that means and how we measure it.

Wherever you sit on the debate, it’s certainly a very hard-working ad. All of the mainstream news and consumer press outlets have jumped on the lurid imagery, the eye-catching headline. The campaign fits perfectly at a time when veganism and food manufacturing processes are a hot topic, so no wonder CNN, Sky, Time, Vice and more are keen to cover it.

“It is effective because we are talking. Most importantly I saw it on every news station,” says Chuck, reflecting on how far the story has dominated the news cycle in the US. It very much maximises a small budget. In fact, it punches way above its weight. I think the brand is being more defined by its marketing attitude than its menu options. And that’s what challenger brands have to do.”

But do column inches and ‘…and finally’ segments translate into effective marketing? Nathalie is less convinced and says that this has been a topic of debate in her office today – which shows that, at any rate, the campaign is crystallising broader tensions in the industry. 

“Talking about something doesn’t mean it is good. Or effective. Or that it will lead to sales. It just doesn’t. Talkability generally means fame and eyeballs but that does equate to meeting targets,” she says.

“Burger King are currently repeatedly making work that is typically ‘famous’ or ‘talked about’ but yet their share price hasn’t risen in years. The work is good but it’s not consistently driving the sales they obviously need.”

One criticism levied is that it's an ad made for ad folk and juries - and Mark points to the subtle logo as something that makes it feel more award-friendly than real world. On the other hand, the conversation and coverage has spread far beyond the advertising industry. Another flashpoint is the tension between a short term and long term view - from Whopper Detour to the 'Whopper of a Secret', the brand has brilliantly and consitently played up its underdog status by getting one over on the competition... but is 'we're not McDonald's' a strong enough brand foundation?

There's a lot to chew over with 'Moldy Whopper', but then again, when was the last time an ad really got us engaging and thinking? Whichever side you take, it's undeniably an embodiment of the ad industry in 2020.

But if you want a quick temperature check of whether the campaign is having an impact or not, one of its biggest fans has already put his money where his mouth is. Or his mouth where his mouth is, at least. “Did I get a Whopper in the end?...YOU BET!” says Mark. “I asked for extra mould on mine.”

(See proof above.)

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Genres: Comedy

Categories: Fast food, Retail and Restaurants

LBB Editorial, 1 month ago