Playing Chicken

I’m on deadline, and yet I just wasted the last 25 minutes asking a guy dressed in a chicken suit to moonwalk, jump on the sofa and sneeze—and found it oddly, almost frighteningly satisfying when he complied. My editor is going to be pissed. I’m going to blame Burger King.

As you probably know by now, the chicken man lives at subservientchicken.com, where he stands ready to perform in a claustrophobic living room. Below the video feed, there’s a bar where you type in what you want him to do. It instructs: “Get chicken just the way you like it. Type in your command here.” That’s the tie back to BK, which is investing in the Web chicken to promote the new TenderCrisp sandwich. It also ties back to the “Have it your way” theme of BK’s current TV campaign, although once you’ve gotten a guy in a chicken suit to play air guitar, who really cares about the TV spots?

I realize how loopy this sounds. It’s as though BK, that serial account-mover, has been stricken with marketing dementia as cosmic justice for its crimes against Madison Avenue. Or that I have.

That’s not it. What we’re witnessing is a client asking for novel thinking and actually getting it. The kind of thinking BK said it wanted when it abruptly fired Young & Rubicam in January and hired Crispin Porter + Bogusky, the agency behind this online stunt. The kind of thinking that marketers frequently say they want but often shy away from if they get it. And it is the best illustration I’ve seen of the increasingly divergent paths the ad industry finds itself on as the 30-second TV spot gives way to ad forms that have almost no mooring in traditional boundaries and over which advertisers can exact only minimal control.

CP+B and Y&R purport to be in the same business, yet one can’t imagine Y&R coming up with a subservient online chicken in a million years.

That’s sad for the Y&Rs of the world—even more so when you look at the kind of phenomenon the Subservient Chicken is quickly becoming. As of last Thursday, Google returned 700 links to sites discussing the chicken, and according to CP+B executive creative director Alex Bogusky, the site has received more than 20 million hits since it went up 10 days ago. A typical post on the online message boards: “He just laughed at me when I told him to ‘kick Colonel Sanders’ ass.’ ” People are spending quality time with this chicken.

This being the Internet, people are inevitably trying to get the chicken to do things like hump the couch, and they’re disappointed when all he does is wave a scolding, feathered finger at them. It’s the kind of stuff that makes advertisers want to hop back in the box they wanted to jump out of.

Let’s hope BK doesn’t do that. Frankly, it’s way too late for marketers to (oh, God) chicken out. The FCC’s crackdown on the Howard Sterns of the world aside, consumers have more control over what they want than ever. It’s time advertisers weren’t terrified by that. True, CP+B’s TV spots promoting the chicken are a bit racy, but they’re funny—and they’re running late at night. If someone decides, in the privacy of their own cubicle, to see if the chicken will perform sexual acts, that’s their problem. This is not the Masturbating Chicken, brought to you by Burger King.

You may think I’ve spent this column dodging the central question: Will this ploy sell more chicken sandwiches? I can’t answer that. But I do know this. My colleagues and I have spent more than a few 30-second spots’ worth of time engaging with our new compliant chicken friend, as have millions of others. And the message —that we can have chicken our way at BK—comes across loud and clear.

Especially for a troubled client like BK, that’s got to be worth the risk.