Trainers shout words of encouragement from the corners of the ring. Years of hard work have come down to this—a gold belt and world championship are at stake, and the fighting's getting a little dirty. TC, aka TenderCrisp, weighing in at slightly more than his competitor, is classically trained. He's fought with the best of the best. His competitor, Spicy, is scrappier. He learned most of his moves, which include a signature kick, on the streets, and they're unconventional and a bit dangerous. Armed military police in masks and riot gear guard the front of the ring. Only after the cage is securely locked do the fighters take their positions.
After climbing down from their corner roosts, they meet in the center of the ring and slowly circle each other like sumo wrestlers, staring each other down. With a few power punches, TC seems in command, until a swift kick from Spicy knocks him down and feathers begin to fly. "Act like this is a real fight!" assistant director David Dean shouts into a bullhorn, trying to get the 400 or so extras around the ring a little more charged. "Get out of your seats if you feel it! This is the world championship of chicken! Love your chicken!"
The crowd dials up the applause, cheering and flag-waving for their fighter of choice. It's nearing midnight at the Pico Rivera Sports Arena, a complex 45 minutes outside of Los Angeles that usually hosts daytime rodeos and has never seen an event quite like this— two stuntmen done up in chicken suits, performing a mix of boxing, martial arts and wrestling, fighting for a title like no other.
It's the set of a new Burger King campaign, and the fast-food company's ad agency, Crispin Porter + Bogusky in Miami, is embarking on another unusual chicken caper—shooting ads that break this week and a pseudo sporting event that will air next month, all of which are a follow-up to the enormously successful "Subservient Chicken."
Following Subservient Chicken—a campaign for the TenderCrisp chicken sandwich that centered on a Web site where visitors could command an actor in a garter-adorned chicken suit to do whatever they wanted (within the bounds of good taste)—the agency and client decided it was worth extending the idea. "We have equity built already with the Subservient Chicken," says Andy Bonaparte, BK's senior director of advertising and multicultural marketing. Bonaparte says the site got more than 350 million hits worldwide and helped "sell a lot, a lot, a lot of chicken sandwiches." He declined to give sales specifics but says he hopes the new campaign—promoting the TenderCrisp and Spicy TenderCrisp sandwiches—produces similar results. "This was truly a phenomenon," he says.
Although it's an extension of the previous TC promotion, as Bonaparte notes, "there's nothing subservient about these chickens."
The backstory is this: The two birds have triumphed in various chicken-fight competitions around the world to earn the right to challenge one another in the final, of which BK is the sponsor. Two 30-second spots and two :15s will introduce the characters, provide the background and footage of their training, weigh-in and walkup to the fight, and build to the main event—the estimated 10-minute fight itself, scheduled to air Nov. 5 as part of an hour of programming on DirecTV and set to run online following the broadcast.
Like the Subservient Chicken site, which reflected BK's "Have it your way" tagline by empowering consumers to take control of the character, the Chicken Sandwich World Championship campaign will solicit consumer participation. The bout—shot over three days in late September and early October with nine cameras (six digi beta and three lipstick) to mimic the look of a real live sporting event—has an ambiguous ending. "That's our secret," says Bonaparte. "We left it where it can go either way." The winner will be determined by viewers' popular vote at chickenfight.com.
Editor Chan Hatcher of Cosmo Street in Santa Monica, Calif., will cut the event down from 36 hours of footage. In two 30-second spots breaking nationally this week on network, cable and syndicated TV, the chickens are introduced with behind-the-scenes footage of their training and weigh in for the fight. TC pecks a striking ball with his beak; Spicy does sit-ups outdoors, hanging from a bar. A voiceover announcer says, "The gold bird TC vs. red hot Spicy. Two chickens. One quest. The Chicken Sandwich World Championship. See who wins. Live. It's time to take sides."
On the set, Spicy fans wave Mexican flags and signs that read, "Spicy Es Mejor" and "It's So Powerful, It's Crazy, Yo!" TC's camp waves "Noble y Intelligente" and "TC Totally Charming" signs. Fans in chicken masks are scattered throughout the audience.
Rob Reilly, associate creative director at CP+B, watches the production crew from @radical. media and the directing duo of Jonathan Kneebone and Gary Freedman—aka The Glue Society—bring the agency's vision to life as the stuntmen duke it out in Stan Winston-made chicken suits and Mexican wrestling masks.
While Reilly admits the scene is a bit odd, he says it has solid strategic underpinnings. As they contemplated how to promote both sandwiches at once, the agency team, which also included executive creative director Alex Bogusky and creative director Andrew Keller, considered some kind of Subservient Chicken coop theme, but decided a fight was the best way to go. "We wanted to let people know our sandwiches are the best, but we didn't want to do a comparison," says Reilly. "We have two equally great sandwiches. We said, 'Let's put them in a competition.' "
The ring-side announcers, Carlos Del Valle, a sportscaster at KNBC-4 in L.A., and Don "The Dragon" Wilson, a nine-time kickboxing champion, set the stage on camera. "Chicken fighting is a little bit of boxing, a little bit of wrestling, a little bit of martial arts," says Wilson. "But in reality, it's a sport unto itself." The first to knock out the other is the winner, he explains. "Practically anything goes. It's an all-out brawl."
To prepare, the agency team watched boxing films like Rocky and classic Muhammad Ali fights against George Foreman and Joe Frazier. For the fight choreography, the team mixed moves and rules from various fighting sports. For example, a sleeper hold gives TC what appears to be a wing up during the fight. "I grew up loving professional wrestling," says CP+B copywriter Rob Strasberg, who wears a TC T-shirt during the production. "Chicken fighting takes some of the moves from wrestling. It's a hand-to-hand, combat sport." Art director James Dawson-Hollis, sporting a faded Black Sabbath T-shirt, clarifies. "It's beak-to-beak," he says. The team gets into the spirit of the competition. "I'm definitely Spicy," says Dawson-Hollis. Strasberg chooses TC as his bird personality of choice. "I'm taller, and I can rarely say that," he says. Plus, Dawson-Hollis admits, TC has "better form."
Executing the concept as a "live" pay-per-view match was natural, says the team. "You choose the media according to the idea," says Strasberg. "We decided to go all the way with it and be honest to the idea."
Kneebone, a former agency copywriter who formed the Australia-based Glue Society partnership in 1997, believes the project—his and Freedman's first in the U.S.—is helping to chart a new path in advertising. "It's the start of a new approach to doing creative work, really," Kneebone says. "There has been a lot of talk in creating content for clients. This idea felt like it was walking the talk."
CP+B interactive creative director Jeff Benjamin is also on set, working with game developer K.C. Austin of WDDG in New York to create a companion online chicken-fighting videogame. "We're going to create the first multiplayer fighting game controlled by yelling 'Peck!' into your computer," Benjamin says proudly. "It'll start off with five commands, and we'll add to it." During the two main days of production (a third is scheduled in which The Glue Society will also direct new executions starring Ugoff, BK's fashion-designer character), the chickens, the 20-by-20-by-20-foot cage and the 8-foot-high perches are all shot individually for the production of the game.
To give consumers further opportunities to interact with the brand, the agency is hiding game codes on the Internet. "You'd be amazed what they find online," says Benjamin, explaining that hackers managed to work their way through Subservient Chicken's codes fairly easily. Benjamin says the fight site will be tied to the Subservient Chicken site, with that character getting new codes as well. "They like to have a sense of discovery," Benjamin says of the 18-25-year-old male target. "We're trying to give people something to talk about."
Sure to amplify the chatter is a cameo appearance by Mr. Burger King himself, a somewhat unnerving character with a smiling, plastic head who was introduced recently in spots for BK's breakfast sandwiches. By his side in the audience is a freckled, red-haired Wendy, the face of the Wendy's chain. "It's a big event. The King wouldn't miss it," Reilly says of the royal visit. As for the monarch's date, Reilly shrugs it off. "The King has been linked to Paris Hilton, you know," he says. "We're lucky," he adds. "BK doesn't have to borrow anyone else's fame. People like the characters we've created."
Bonaparte won't reveal weather the King will appear in the final cut of the main event, but he does anticipate further exploration of the character and possibly some more surprise appearances. "We're going over how we are going to use him," he says. "He should be one of those characters in line with the brand image and personality. Somewhat cool, somewhat edgy, a little bit irreverent."
Just how irreverent can BK get without ruffling a few feathers? Actual chicken fighting, after all, is illegal in most of the U.S. and condemned as a bloody and ruthless activity. But the agency and client distance themselves from the underground sport. "Burger King Corporation does not endorse animal cruelty of any kind," says a BK rep. "The spirit of this campaign is intended to evoke a feisty competitiveness between two 'world-class champions': the TenderCrisp chicken sandwich and the Spicy TenderCrisp chicken sandwich. This campaign is designed to be humorous in nature."
The agency instructed the directors that the look of the competition "can't be too broad and can't be too real," says Reilly. "It's so far-fetched. It's edgy, but it's not too edgy. They're guys in chicken suits."