Good, Bad or Ugly; The Moldy Whopper

Something is rotten in the state of Marketing. That’s not a value judgement, just a nod to the fact that all the industry seemed to want to talk about last week was a decaying beefburger, courtesy of Burger King. Everyone had an opinion on the “mouldy Whopper” campaign, but sort through the noise and most of those opinions came down in one of three camps:


  1. It’s Good!: Burger King have made a brave and clever advert which effectively positions their burgers as natural – without preservatives – and the competition’s as artificial.
  2. It’s Bad!: Burger King have made a piece of self-indulgent awards-bait, which creates negative associations between their brand and spoiled food – whatever their aims, these associations will put people off.
  3. It’s (Deliberately) Ugly!: Burger King have succeeded in their real aim, which is to cut through the media noise and get talked about, and that’s what they need to do as a challenger brand.


We tested the moldy Whopper ad using our Test Your Ad system. Which of these three takes is closest to the truth?

The ad scored a rock-bottom 1.0 Stars, so we can rule out number 1. If the Burger King ad is clever, its cleverness isn’t getting through to customers, who felt strongly negative towards the ad. The problem with any interpretation which stresses a brand’s intent – how it wants to be positioned – is that intent counts for very little.

The people who spend hours and days crafting an ad, and the people who spend months strategising for a brand, are often just too close to their subject. What seems obvious and easy to grasp to them might sail over the heads of the audience, during their one or two exposures to a campaign.

What about take number 2? The dominant emotion we detected was disgust – this is one of the most disgusting ads we’ve ever tested. Only a notorious Australian pimple cream ad, in which teens popped zits on-camera for 90 repulsive seconds, rivals it.

Disgust is an emotion we advise brands to steer well clear of. Unlike sadness or anger, it’s almost impossible to resolve effectively in the course of an ad. In Thinking, Fast And Slow, Daniel Kahneman at one point gives you the phrase – “BANANA VOMIT” – part of the point being that any positive associations of “banana” are massively and automatically outweighed by the negative ones of “vomit”. It’s the same with trying to use disgust alongside positive emotions.

The Burger King ad gleefully invokes disgust, and in emotional response terms it pays the price. It’s hard to think of an ad which so clearly illustrates the point made by Andrew Tenzer (Reach Media) and Ian Murray (house 51) in The Empathy Delusion (quoted in Orlando Wood’s Lemon) about how adland is out-of-touch with the public on moral foundations. The wider public bases its moral judgements on multiple foundations, but the ad industry tends to ignore many of these. One of the moral foundations people care about but the ad industry doesn’t is “purity”, and there are few greater purity violations than rotting food. It’s no wonder people recoiled.

So the second interpretation – this is a bad ad which will do the brand no long-term good – has strong back-up from our survey. What about Take No 3 – that its quality doesn’t matter, as it gets Burger King talked about?

People saying this really do have a point. The ad may have bottomed out on its long-term Star Rating, but its Spike Rating was extremely high. That predicts a high short-term impact of the ad – getting talked about and getting Burger King’s name out there.

We assume with Spike that anything which raises the salience of a brand – widening its mental or physical availability – will do it good in the short term, Moldy Whopper is an interesting test case, as it skirts perilously close to suggesting its own brand is contaminated. But most people won’t see the ads or pay much attention to the story – they’ll just be reminded Burger King exists, which should do the brand good.

Shock value ads are better in the short term than mediocre, neutral 1-Star efforts – they get people talking and can generate strong immediate impact. But they’re no substitute for long-term campaigns which aim to seduce their audiences, not disgust them.

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