The Burger King Unmasked: Understanding BK's Creepy Royalty

PHOTO A television screen grab from a recent Burger King commercial is shown.
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You may remember the iconic "Saturday Night Live" sketch, The Olympia Restaurant, a takeoff on a Greek Diner where you can only get cheeseburgers, Pepsi and chips. The next Monday at school, all during the day, we would look at each other and say "cheeseburger, cheeseburger" in bad Greek accents and then double over in laughter.

That single sketch, performed by John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and the cast of SNL over 30 years ago, inspired a chain of restaurants and an indie band, and remains a solid plank in the platform of baby boomer nostalgia. Every time an ad agency tries a viral campaign, that is the level of success they are hoping for.

Since 2004, Burger King and its agency, CP+B , have tried to achieve popular success with "The King," an actor wearing an oversized Burger King head. Its recent attempt, a parody of an infomercial selling a pillowcase that has the menu on one side and a picture of the King on the other, continues Burger King's quest to goose its breakfast business. (Full disclosure: I worked at an ad agency that had Burger King as a client in the 1990s.)

The King has long been an attempt at reaching a young adult male consumers. In one of the TV spots from 2004 a man wakes up to find the King on his bed. The King hands him a breakfast sandwich and viewers are urged to "wake up with the king."

All over the Internet, blogs began calling the King "creepy" and the commercials "weird." BK kept at it. The King has appeared in a viral campaign where he is supposedly "caught" by paparazzi with model Brooke Burke.

Every marketer knows that in a viral campaign, negative publicity is not necessarily bad publicity. So the campaign has continued and, some would say, gotten creepier.

Some mistakenly believe the King is BK's answer to Ronald McDonald and is targeted at kids. Actually, or so the story goes, an agency executive found the oversized head on eBay (it supposedly had a hole where the mouth is and was used to blow up large balloons). He kept it on his desk and eventually, with a stylist's help, it became the King we know today.

Burger King's breakfast sales have been a focus of the company as it tries to gain ground on McDonald's. BK gets about 14 percent of its business from breakfast, while McDonald's gets about a quarter.

So the King may not be working for BK. Burger King sales have continued to be sluggish. BK most recently reported a 0.7 percent decline in 4th quarter sales. McDonald's showed a modest increase, 4.8 percent, over the same period.

But gone are the days when a campaign for a product meant TV commercials with some supporting print and radio. Today, to get a true picture of intent and audience, one must go online.

Back to that fake infomercial with the pillowcase. The Web is awash with talk about the pillowcase and the King. Spending some time on the Web, navigating through search engines, you begin to see some of the clever manipulation.

Many of the search words you would employ lead you to lots of blogging about the pillowcase and the spot -- but also usually a sponsored Burger King link: "Visit Burger King Today." The fact that they use an actual product, the pillowcase, gave them a much larger footprint on the web.

We live in an emerging world dominated by reality TV and multiple communications devices. In this world, savvy marketers fight for a "share of eyeballs."

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