Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Whoppers Well Done

It’s no surprise that Burger King sales are dropping. In the last two years, the home of the Whopper has faced new ownership and upsets in management while frantically romancing, hooking up with and discarding ad agencies the way Paris Hilton changes boyfriends or outfits. That pretty much sets up a perfect storm of a marketing disaster (to go flagrantly from sexual to maritime metaphors).

Obviously, all that moving around meant scattershot, inconsistent work. When Y&R was hired, it had about two weeks to produce 14 commercials. The spot with all those people waving on the side of the road next to their grills was unfortunate, and the work never did click after that. Now BK has hired Crispin Porter + Bogusky, its fifth agency in less than four years, and again asked for a quick turnaround.

Of all things, these first two commercials are set in an office, which is a look heavy on guys with varying degrees of weirdly cut hair who stand around in ties and shirtsleeves, talking. (And there’s always the one woman.) Where have we seen this cubicle-based humor before? Oh, in spots for Volkswagen, FedEx, ESPN, Microsoft and HBO, to name a few. (The BBC sitcom The Office also has a similar look.) The cinema has film noir—advertising has video beige.

But the good news is that these commercials, while set in all-too-familiar territory, are pretty delightful and manage to connect almost immediately. They do two smart things: They bring back BK’s one true thing, its “Have It Your Way” jingle (briefly at the very end, in a sped-up, rocked-out, modified cover version), and they forego flame-broiling altogether to concentrate on the sweet and earnest idea of personalizing your Whopper. (Hey, no snickers.)

The almost self-contradictory idea of mass customization is huge now. My son just ordered baseball cleats with his initials on them (who knew?) from Nike’s Web site. The whole Starbucks strategy is to make the customer feel cool and particularly in-the-know with his or her order, that whole triple-grande-half-decaf-soy-latte-with-an-extra-spritz-of-amaretto thing.

But that’s the opposite extreme, the pretentious side of customization. The reason these BK commercials work is because they are honest and sweet. Super-attuned to the banality of office life, they suggest that even in this smelly lunchroom, with its bulletin-board notices and bad seasonal decorations, there is a capacity for a millisecond of pride and joy over your BK order, no matter how soul-crushing the overall environment is. Obviously, one of the reasons that ads are so full of office scenes these days is that we are spending more and more time there, and with the different personalities thrown together and butting heads, it becomes a natural backdrop for comedy and drama.

The casting of the spots is expert. All of these people seem vaguely familiar, as if you could have worked with them at some point. Director Martin Granger has a deft hand with an ensemble group, making it seem simple and authentic.

In the first spot, our young group gathers in the lunchroom (BK demographics: mostly males 18-35) to disperse the hot BK takeout, and each member has expressed his or her individuality in the ordering (“Whopper with double lettuce, double cheese, no onion”). The final guy has ordered “no lettuce, extra ketchup, double bacon, double mayo and two extra beef patties.” He’s so thrilled with owning that very manly, health-defying order that, in his shirt and pleated pants, he takes a victory lap around the room, shouting, “I am the champion!”

You had to be there. It’s well acted, paced and directed, and nicely evokes that moment when your order comes out of the bag and is handed to you—and it’s what you wanted and you’re not forgotten! Not only that, you’re a special someone—a big chooser!

The second spot is funnier and offers a perfect little character study, even in 30 seconds. People get territorial about their orders, and it amusingly raises that terrible specter of regret: You rushed into one thing, and now you realize that the other guy’s lunch sounds much better—you have order envy! Same group, but this time the young woman is dispensing the goods. When she calls out, “Whopper, no lettuce, double tomato, double bacon,” a small guy in a red tie reaches for it. A taller guy in the same red tie looks alarmed. “You copied my Whopper?” he asks (a great line), and time in the lunchroom just stops cold.

There’s endless, uncomfortable silence, and we seem to be living every second of it in real time. All we hear is the sound of one guy—who didn’t hold the lettuce—chewing, and even he stops. The little guy is cornered—he’s screwed, he can’t lie. His delicate little ear getting redder, he finally issues a very small, barely audible “yes.” I laugh every time I see it.

Obviously, two cute commercials are not going to save the ailing chain. But these ads hit a hot spot by illuminating a small truth about how we eat.