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Brave or an ad industry in-joke? For and against Burger King's mouldy Whopper

Burger King's new ad has split opinions.

Burger King has caused a stir with a global campaign that showcases its prized Whopper burger decaying over a 34-day period. The rotten ad has been designed to highlight the chain's decision to remove artificial preservatives from its flagship burger. But is it a shining example of Burger King's creative genius, or a stunt designed to win awards that will simply leave a bad taste in customers' mouths?

The case for: it's bold, irreverent, plays on viral stories about its rivals and shows Burger King "doesn't give a fuck"...

"I haven’t thought about McDonald’s once since I saw the ad"

Eve Young, copywriter, Social Chain Agency

I’m obsessed with this campaign.

It’s bold, eye-catching and unexpected. And it clearly meets its objective.

Here’s the thing: Burger King is a bold, irreverent brand. It knows people think of it as second to McDonald’s, so it has learned to be fearless in order to carve out its own identity.

It doesn’t give a fuck and people love it for it.

Remember, one of last year’s most viral video trends on social when fast food photography was exposed to show how brands were falsifying images of ingredients using engine oil, shaving cream and copious amounts of hairspray. Burger King’s contrasting, glorious reality is nothing but a breath of fresh air.

You have to applaud the transparency the brand has employed by showing exactly how the Whopper is made. You know what I find a turn-off? Chemicals in my food and burgers that look like plastic.

I like knowing that what I put in my body is natural - and I’m not alone. All food goes off. All food should go off. That’s not nauseating, it’s reassuring.

More than that, this campaign is clearly another brazenly on-brand dig at McDonald’s, whose burgers - dictated by food folklore - are said not to decompose at all.

Chief marketing officer Fernando Machado is not losing sleep over the fact half of you are feeling a bit ill. He’s already taken this mass conversation as a huge win and is busy planning the brand’s next middle-finger-up-to-Maccies moment.

I have to respect a brand that leans into discomfort rather than shying away from it. And that respect will last longer than any ickiness I might feel.

No matter your opinion, you can’t deny that you’ve had a strong emotional reaction to this campaign. That will make it stick in your memory. Here’s what most brands fail to understand: dividing people can be a win. Debate. Conversation. Attention. I haven’t thought about McDonald’s once since I saw the ad, but I’ve thought of Burger King 100 times.

"More brands should take risks like this"

David Proudlock, head of strategy, CPB London

OK, so there’s an argument the ad is a bit too clever for its own good, and it was never going to be a slam-dunk simply because it’s risky. However, risky can be good, particularly when you’re striving for distinction and talkability.

And that’s exactly where we are now - I'm talking about the brand, the work and indeed the issue at hand: a commitment to preservative-free food in the quick-service category.

The creative definitely cuts-through and is a brave, bold, daring way to walk the talk on zero preservatives. Everyone else just sticks a kitemark/claim on their packaging and feel like they’ve ticked the box - but they’re missing a trick.

Burger King has been building a disruptive brand personality recently and in that context, this fits perfectly. There is no denying it’s disruptive. And it’s another in-your-face challenge to McDonald’s and their picture-perfect burger ads, the ones that in real-life never look the same.

This is the latest example of Burger King’s all-out attack on McDonald’s, and it’s fun to watch. First, there was the free burger if you checked in at Maccas, then an invite from Burger King to burn its competitors’ advertising. Then the oh-so-sneaky hiding a McDonald's burger behind all Burger King shoots in 2019, to cleverly show how much bigger BK burgers are.

And now this. More subtle, but equally powerful.

Frankly it’s refreshing to see a client challenging the most fundamental conventions of the category - the industry would be better if more brands took risks like this.

"It makes me connect Burger King with fresh ingredients"

Leila Mountford, creative director, Lewis Global Communications

As consumers, we've all moved on leaps and bounds in the last few decades on understanding the ingredients we are eating. We’ve all watched the documentaries and reality TV shows, read the articles and seen the posts circulating on social media warning us to avoid ‘e’ numbers and refined this and that. Nutritional information is a lot more transparent, too.

So why do I like this ad? It’s an ad that makes you think: 'Of course it should decompose. Duh!'. An ad that should repulse even the biggest burger fans out there. I like it because it triggers a connection in my memory from years ago and has left me tickled…

In 2013, a guy from Utah revealed how he'd left a McDonald’s burger in his trunk back in 1999. The story goes that when he opened the original bag it had been sold in, he couldn’t believe his eyes, the burger was perfectly preserved and so he kept it for 14 years. It was a viral story that every person I knew was talking about at the time and has become almost one of the go-to gross fast food stories of the decade.

So, when I saw the mouldy Whopper ad, I thought it was a bit repulsive, but that the time-lapse is cool. Then I thought there’s nothing wildly game-changing here, this is how food should decompose… but then, the kicker – what makes this ad special. I remembered that McDonald’s burgers apparently don’t decompose like that ('Didn’t that guy in the US keep a Maccy Ds for years and it looked the same? Yes! Gross McDonald’s.')

With that, Burger King strikes again. Whether the insight for this campaign came from that old tale in Utah or not, I don’t know. For me, the ad makes my mind connect Burger King with fresh ingredients – and reminds me of that deep-sleeping sensational story about McDonald’s gross use of preservatives.

Job done.

The case against: it's unappetising, awards-driven and relies too much on customers knowing about McDonald's seemingly unperishable burgers...

"This ad was made for award shows, not to sell"

Nathalie Gordon, freelance creative lead

Look, I get the ad, the strategy and the cultural landscape that makes it relevant. I’m familiar with the McDonalds rotting (or not rotting) in a museum in Iceland somewhere. I can also appreciate it as a brave way to show the ‘no preservatives' news.

But does it sell burgers? Or Burger King? No.

Most people will see nothing but a rotting burger, none of the background fluff and ultimately that is all it that will stay in front of mind.

This ad wasn’t made to sell; it was a stunt to get PR that will appeal to Tom, Dick and Harry who will award it Gold because they think it’s ‘clever’ – they don’t care if it sold a damn thing.

David Miami only made this ad because it Cannes (thanks to

@sarahspoon for that turn of phrase). Personally that does nothing for me.

"A tough piece of meat to chew on"

Stephen Lepitak, editor, The Drum

This must be the first time in my life I’ve looked at a hamburger from Burger King and thought – no thank you.

In recent years there has been much brilliance in what the challenger burger chain brand has produced. It’s captured the attention of the press and created a great deal of earned media – but has it finally gone too far with ‘The Mouldy Whopper?’

Surely inspired by the McDonald’s seemingly imperishable 10-year-old Big Mac, I can’t help but think that the last thing any food chain wants is for the image of its usually visually appealing and appetising flagship burger to suddenly be etched into the minds of their potential consumer-based with a grey and rotting sandwich...

There’s a point here, which is to showcase that the chain has removed any artificial preservatives – but in doing that I’m not sure it will have made mouths water and will attract people to get down to their local Burger King this lunchtime.

“At Burger King restaurants, we believe that real food tastes better. That’s why we are working hard to remove preservatives, colors and flavors from artificial sources from the food we serve in all countries around the world,” explained Machado, Burger King's global chief marketing officer.

In the last year, the chain has been attempting to become a bit more 'woke' – it has run campaigns that saw it dump plastic toys given away with its meals and it has teamed up with Impossible Foods to produce The Impossible Whopper, which while meat-free is not vegan friendly (not that it claimed to be).

In an age where the environmental impact of brands is being closely monitored, Burger King is trying to own the creative market. However, this stunt could end up giving the brand a tough piece of meat to chew on.

There’s a lot of love for what its chief marketing officer has been producing in the role and the attention he and the brand have received despite being only the sixth-highest spender on media in the fast-food space since 2013.

“To be a success…people need to look at the stuff and say that 'only Burger King could have done that'. It’s what makes me close that gap on the brands [operating] up there and it’s why we treat creativity as a competitive advantage," he explained during a presentation at Advertising Week last year.

It’s this philosophy that showcases exactly what advertising is there to achieve, but I can’t help but wonder if this particular attempt is a shot in the foot.

Will it drive sales – I just don’t see how as those who eat there aren’t doing so with any intentions of enjoying a healthy meal. Sure it’s good not to have preservatives in your food, but when it comes to fast food, showcasing it in such an unappealing manner is baffling.

"It makes customers work too hard"

Erik Winther Paisley, insights director, Brand and Deliver

Yum beats yuck. Frankly I don’t think it’s in Burger King’s best interest to associate their brand with rot and decay.

Sure, it’s a clever comment on the supposed artificiality of McDonald’s food — which doesn’t prevent it from beating Burger King hands down on all the metrics that matter — but what’s the point of advertising?

If the answer is to be the coolest kid on the block, then sure fill the airwaves with rot. If you want to shift product, maybe associating the product with the one emotion that most stops people from eating isn’t ideal.

Let's also just look at how much work the ad asks people to do. For one, this ad is a response to the latest iteration of the trope that McDonald’s food doesn’t rot. You have to have followed that story to get the Burger King response ad and most consumers don’t spend their time keeping track of what another brand did the week before.

What's more, Burger King is asking people to reconsider food spoilage as something good, since it’s a sign that the food is natural and uncontaminated. That’s a lot of cognitive work to put on customers. And in a fight between visceral reaction and abstract appreciation, my money is on the visceral reaction.

The fact that fast food doesn’t seem to spoil as quickly as other food does make some people uncomfortable, but that’s a category issue. If Burger King wanted to show it wasn't like that, it would have to convince audiences that its food wasn’t actually fast food, but it doesn't have the cultural chops to do that. And it doesn't want to either.

It is a fast-food brand and it needs people to buy into it, despite the existence of healthier natural options.

The ad industry rewards cleverness, referentially and in-jokes. I’m sure it’s hilarious to work on Burger King, but let’s look at the facts: Mcdonald’s has four-times the market share and 18-times the brand value, according to BrandZ.

So if you want to win awards, do what Burger King does. If you want to be a $150bn plus company, then take your learnings from McDonald’s.

What's your take on Burger King's Rotten Burger? Let us know.