April 6, 2010 — -- The economy may be recovering but advertisers and marketers are still pulling out all the stops to attract customers.
Some campaigns work better than others.
Burger King has sparked the ire of mental health advocates with a commercial depicting its King mascot as "crazy."
A San Francisco eatery has convinced some customers to get tattoos in exchange for free food for life.
A Burger King commercial running in recent weeks declares the "King's gone crazy," and shows the burger chain's royal mascot running through a bulding, knocking someone over and crashing through a plate glass window before being tackled to the ground by men in white coats.
The commercial was supposed to trumpet Burger King's new Burger King Steakhouse XT burger: The "king's insane" for "offerings so much beef for $3.99," said the ad.
But some mental health advocates said the commercial inadvertently promoted something else: the stigma associated with being mentally ill.
The commercial capitalized "on some of those most negative stereotypes of people with mental illnesses," said David Shern, the president and CEO of Mental Health America.
The behavior exhibited by the "crazy" King in the commercial "would be rare and those kinds of stereotypes perpetuate discrimination against people with mental illnesses and stimulate fears," Shern said.
Michael Fitzpatrick, the executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness, said advertisers should treat mental illness in the way they do other illnesses.
"You don't make fun of people in wheelchairs, you don't take fun of people with heart disease, kidney disease, cancer," he said. "Mental illness is an illness like any other."
As first reported by The Washington Post, both organizations have sent letters to Burger King asking them to pull the ad. Burger King has stopped running the ad nationally but it may still be broadcast in some local markets, a spokeswoman said.
In an e-mailed statement, the chain said it "values and respects all of its guests."
"The ads in discussion are intended to highlight the premium value and affordability of the Burger King Steakhouse XT burger line. The creative concepts used to bring this to life were meant to highlight the King's unchecked enthusiasm about giving his guests a steakhouse-quality sandwich at a great price and were not intended to reflect any group or situation," the company said.
With fewer franchises than McDonald's, Burger King is "always trying edgy stuff" in their commercials, said ABCNews.com columnist Larry Woodard, the president and CEO of Graham Stanley Advertising.
Woodard questioned the chain's wisdom in continuing to use the King mascot.
"Even though teenagers might think that the Burger King is cool, he's sort of freaky to everyone else," he said. " You wonder why a company would take that kind of risk."
A San Francisco Mexican restaurant is offering its customers free meals for life if they get a tattoo featuring the restaurant's logo: a sombrero-wearing boy riding a giant ear of corn.
Casa Sanchez first offered the promotion ten years ago and has now brought it back, calling it the "stimulus special," said owner Marty Sanchez, who first spoke to ABC News affiliate KGO-TV.
Sanchez told ABCNews.com that customers who get the logo tattoo, which was modeled after his little brother, Jimmy, are entitled to one free meal -- customers have their choice of burritos, tacos, tamales and more -- and one free drink per day.
"People always said it was a cute little logo and it would make a great tattoo, so we decided to see who would really be interested in making a tattoo," she said. "And we thought if the tatoo's for life, then it's only fair to give them free lunch for life."
Customers, she said, must pay for the tattoos themselves. The tattoos typically cost about $100 to $140, so it takes a Casa Sanchez patron about 12 meals before he or she breaks even on their investment, Sanchez said.
A decade ago, some 50 customers took part in the promotion. This time around, she said, three more have gone under the needle so far.
Sanchez isn't worried, she said, about throngs of tattooed patrons consuming enough food to drive the restaurant into the red.
"Nobody can eat the same thing every day," she said. "I grew up in the restaurant and I can't eat the same food every day."
Las Vegas' 'What Happens Here, Stays Here' Ads
Las Vegas still has plenty of sin to go around; at least that's what the city's marketers would like consumers to think.
An ad campaign by Las Vegas Tourism revamped its old slogan "What Happens Here, Stays Here," and attempted to refute claims that nobody is interested in all that Sin City offers.
"All of the news coverage made it sound like things were closing down and we were boarding up the town, and that's clearly not the case," said Betsy Ward, the director of communications for R&R Partners, the firm handling Las Vegas' advertising.
"We had to show, in a dramatic way, that regular people are coming here and having a blast," she said.
And dramatic it was.
The ad depicted faux television reporter Candace Newman delivering the news on the dismal reality of life in Las Vegas: Empty cabanas and pools where "the water's warm, but nobody's getting in."
But as soon as her broadcast ended, Newman stripped down to a skimpy bikini and joined the revelers in the nearby pool.
"We decided to push back a little on the message that the sky is falling," Ward said. "Yes, things are tough but people still need a break and Las Vegas is the perfect place to do it."
Air New Zealand staff members are baring it all -- for the sake of business, of course -- and they're not at all shy about doing it.
In an ad released last year, Air New Zealand painted 80 of its staff members in body paint, eight of whom were wearing no clothes at all, in an effort to prove to customers that the airline is serious about not hiding anything.
The airline was promoting its "no-hidden-fees policy" that it hopes will boost business.
As for the issue of nudity, the ad's creators strategically placed beverage carts and luggage in the way of the staff's most private parts.
Pepsi's 'MacGruber' Super Bowl Commercial
Though Pepsi's "Saturday Night Live" sketch-turned-commercial may have initially confused consumers who were unsure whether they were watching a late-night sketch or an ad for the soda, industry insiders say that cutting through the clutter and standing out -- even if you confuse a few viewers -- is imperative during an economic downturn.
"SNL's" "MacGruber" sketches first appeared during the NBC show and then later during the 2009 Super Bowl. All were collaborations between "SNL" producers and Pepsi, which paid "SNL" to run the sketches during the program and then also paid for the time during the big game.
In each of the three versions of the ad -- which is a spoof on the 1980s' special agent McGyver -- "SNL" actor Will Forte constantly touts Pepsi products as he and two friends (one of them played by original "McGyver" actor Richard Dean Anderson) try to escape from a building that is about to explode. In the third version of the ad, Forte's obsession with Pepsi has grown and he is no longer making sense when he speaks. He just repeats "Pepsi" over and over again.
"Everyone does product placement, but this was way over the top," said Steve Hall, the editor of the marketing industry blog Adrants.com. "The ads illustrated how insanely insane product placement has become."
"This is definitely a result of the poor economy," he said. "Advertisers are finding ways to hold up their products and say their names as much as possible."
David Griner, the social media strategist for marketing agency Luckie & Co. and a writer for Adweek's blog, Adfreak.com, said the "MacGruber" campaign was also a way to cut costs, try something new and experiment with ways to advertise effectively without blowing the budget.
"They didn't blow their money on high budget ads but instead found a way to get people to keep talking about it on their own," said Griner.
Starbucks vs. McDonald's McCafe
Daily coffee may be the last place caffeine addicts want to cut corners, but high-end coffee chain Starbucks quickly learned that even its most loyal customers were cringing at the thought of spending a lot for a cup of joe during the recession.
As a result, Starbucks offered a value menu of its own -- $3.95 for a coffee and a breakfast pastry or sandwich. Industry experts were left to wonder just how desperate Starbucks must be when it starts competing with McDonald's speciality coffees for business, now available in the coffee bars located in McDonald's restaurants, called McCafes.
Seeing Starbucks adapt its highbrow image to one that boasts value and addresses cost savings is out of line with the company's brand image, said Griner, who suggests this may be the most desperate move a company can make in a wavering economy.
"Starbucks is in a tight spot," said Griner. "When the economy was good, they spent years telling people they're a luxury item, but suddenly they're saying they're cheap and affordable. You can't be both."
Hall agreed: "There is some desperation on the part of Starbucks."
"McDonald's has always sold cheap stuff," Hall said. "McDonald's and Starbucks mean two entirely different things."
Further capitalizing on the public's want for all things cheap, McCafe will be a major sponsor of New York's Fashion Week. While fashionistas such as Vogue's Anna Wintour and the Olsen twins are routinely seen clutching their Starbucks cups, McDonald's is hoping to take over where Starbucks has previously been the item du jour.
Wendy's '3conomics' Commercial
In an ad campaign touting three 99-cent sandwiches, fast-food chain Wendy's -- touting the deal as "3conomics" -- tried an advertising technique Hall said he's seeing again and again: trying to use the poor economy in advertising as a way to relate to customers.
In the Wendy's ad, three guys are sitting around a lunch table, all with Wendy's sandwiches in front of them. When one begins to explain to the other two the "basic principles of 3conomics," the others ask him how he knows so much about the deals.
"I used to work on Wall Street," he says.
"They are of course mentioning the economy because people understand it," said Hall. "They're not trying to make fun of it, but they're showing that everyone is affected by the economy and if they're not they know someone who is."
Broadcasters trying to garner ad dollars are even turning to their talent to promote products as a way to reach those viewers who normally tune out during regular commercial breaks.
ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live" often features "live commercials" during which characters from the show appear in ads for a product.
In the clip shown here, Kimmel's real-life Uncle Frank Potenza and the show's security guard Guillermo Rodriguez talk about how "sporty" and "luxurious" the Pontiac Solstice GXP is as they sit inside a bright-yellow Solstice.
"This sort of thing is awkward," said Hall. "It reeks of desperation in that it's endless proliferation of advertising because there's so much out there marketers are forced to do more."
"Everyone is looking for a new method that will cut through the clutter," he said.
Griner said that live ads are just "another gimmick aimed at blurring the line between marketing and entertainment."
"Or at least aimed at slipping past the fast-forward button on your DVR."
Burger King's 'Whopper Sacrifice'
Long before its King mascot went "crazy," Burger King was turning heads with its "Whopper Sacrifice" campaign.
Burger King developed an application on the popular social networking site Facebook offering customers a coupon for a free Whopper if they de-friended 10 of their contacts.
The application has since been removed from Facebook because of privacy concerns, but Griner said the Burger King experiment drove home an important economic lesson. Penny-pinching customers were able to earn free food and the company did not break the bank with the campaign.
"This is somewhat of a economical message that you don't have to spend millions and millions on one really nice ad when you can create a lot of buzz by creating something that is smart and carries itself," he said.
Hyundai's Assurance Program
This campaign from Hyundai campaign would have once been unimaginable: Buy a car and enjoy it… until you lose your job. Then the dealership will take it back.
"This is classic auto manufacturer desperation," said Hall. "This is unprecedented. We're seeing zero percent financing and huge discounts."
Griner said that while it's certainly a dramatic gesture, Hyundai is smart to address a real and noticeable public trend.
"If one thing is clear it's that everyone is seeing job loss and Hyundai tied their campaign to that in a way that wasn't predatory or disgusting and is actually kind of nice," he said.
"There's something charming about this approach."
It's not just Hyundai trying to lure customers into its dealerships. Dodge dealerships across the nation have reportedly offered two-for-one sales, by which they will sell you a second car for as little as $1.
"It's dramatic and noticeable and a real conversation starter, but it's still within their brand image of being affordable," said Griner.
This is just another way to get creative -- or some say desperate -- to sell cars.
It may seem like advertisements already take up every inch of free space, but Spirit Airlines has found yet another spot to place company logos and increase profit as the airline industry struggles to survive.
The airline has put Bud Light logos on its employees' aprons, upsetting flight attendants who argue that they are being treated like "walking billboards."
"I think you're going to see more and more brand affiliation and brand alliance anywhere you're selling space," said Griner. "Especially for discount airlines."
"It's something people have been complaining about for years -- that advertisements are everywhere -- but the economic trends will give airlines even more reason to put product placement pretty much anywhere they physically can."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.