Burgers, Not Boobs: Carl’s Jr. Brilliantly Flips the Script by Tearing Down Its Own Smutty Ads

Carl Hardee Sr. is brand's first spokesman in 72andSunny's meta manifesto

Fictional founder Carl Hardee Sr. is done selling sex and ready to take the brand in a new direction. Carl's Jr. via YouTube
Headshot of T.L. Stanley

Folksy and charming, Carl Hardee Sr. is a no-nonsense kind of guy who doesn’t care much for provocative ads featuring bikini-clad women. He aims to put the focus on “food, not boobs,” with a new marketing strategy. 

That’s quite a departure for the Carl’s Jr and Hardees burger chains, where millennial playboy Carl Hardee Jr. has been running the place like a baller, using exposed skin and double entendres to grab consumers’ attention. Looks like the party’s over, dude. 

This is the fictional scenario, with a cheeky nod to real life, for a new campaign launching today and kicking off a major brand overhaul for the fast-food restaurants. It also introduces the first-ever spokesman for the CKE-owned Carl’s Jr and Hardees sister chains—the logically named Carl Hardee Sr. (an amalgam of actual founders Carl Karcher and Wilbur Hardee).

Played by actor-musician Charles Esten from the soapy series Nashville, the weathered and bearded character takes control of the company from his wayward son in the opening moments of the new spot. Flanked by movers who quickly get to work tearing down the displays of branded hedonism, Senior quickly gets the attention of his out-of-control progeny and his long-suffering employees.

It’s unclear where Papa Hardee has been all this time—those risqué commercials go back at least 15 years—but it’s obvious that stuff just got real. (The mechanical bull in the corner office can stay, though).

Ad agency 72andSunny has created the Hardee character with the goal of changing the conversation around the burger chains (known as Hardees in the South and Carl’s Jr. in most other markets), which broke ground with industry firsts like made-from-scratch biscuits and grass-fed beef. (There is a meta element, of course, in seeing 72andSunny tear down its old advertising with the new.) 

They’re also rolling out a new tagline: “Pioneers of the great American burger.”

“They’ve never really gotten credit for their quality, and we want that message to land with consumers,” said Jason Norcross, executive creative director and partner at 72andSunny. “We want to reclaim their bona fides.” 

“It was time to evolve. Some of the product attributes got lost because people were too busy ogling girls.”
Jason Norcross, 72andSunny

But there’s no point in denying the controversial and much-maligned approach of the past, he said. Instead, the new campaign embraces previous ad stars like Charlotte McKinney, Genevieve Morton, Emily Sears and Elena Belle in a winking way (they’ll appear only as cardboard cutouts and artwork).

“It was time to evolve,” Norcross said of the previous “made-you-look” tactics. “Some of the product attributes got lost because people were too busy ogling girls.”

The target audience is the same—young, hungry guys—but Norcross said the brand wants to be considered as a lower-priced alternative to competitors like Shake Shack, The Habit and others in the currently hot better-burger category. The campaign’s ongoing emphasis will be on ingredients and sourcing, two hot topics in the broader food world.

Carl Hardee Sr. will show up in TV spots, on digital and social media and in GIFs from emerging artists. There’s a planned YouTube takeover where he physically pushes aside the former ads, which some critics have likened to soft-core porn, and replaces them with straight-up food porn.

The character will likely be integrated into programming or branded bits on networks like Comedy Central via media partnerships. (His girl-crazy son, played by comedian Drew Tarver, may have a recurring role as well).

The chain has new packaging, too.

72andSunny execs also revamped the chains’ logo, uniforms, menus and packaging – streamlining the look and stripping out the bright red cartoonish touches—for what Norcross called “a big brand reboot that we hope becomes a brand transformation.”

On the get-it-done scale, Carl Hardee Sr. is obviously an overachiever. As seen in the new 3-minute mini-movie, it doesn’t take him long to effect some radical change at his old stomping ground, lining the walls with hero shots of burgers instead of eye candy and revoking his son’s parking privileges.

He also gives viewers a history lesson about the brand, founded in 1956, showing in flashback how the chain popularized charbroiled meat and the drive-thru window. (Carl Jr. shows up in the time-shifted snippets when he’s cute and young, pre-obnoxious bro phase).

Esten, who also has a comedy and improv background, plays Hardee Sr. with a mix of disciplinarian dad and straight-shooting Southern gentleman. (And he drives a vintage Corvette, so he’s old-school badass).

Hardee Sr. will be the face of the brand for the rest of the year (at least), touting, among other things, new burgers with unique flavor combinations. 72andSunny execs also pulled in trap-music artist Oiki to reveal the brand’s new tagline in short films and announce all-natural chicken and other product launches. Watch the first, called “Pioneer,” below.



Chief Marketing Officer: Brad Haley

SVP, Product Marketing: Bruce Frazer

Director of Advertising: Brandon LaChance

VP, Field Marketing, Media & Merchandising: Steve Lemley

Director, Product Marketing & Merchandising: Christie Cooney

Product Marketing Managers: Kathy Johnson, Allison Pocino, Claire Eastburn

72andSunny Team

Founder, Creative Co-Chair: John Boiler

Executive Creative Director: Jason Norcross

Group Creative Director: Josh Fell

Sr. Designer: Jon Hall

Writer: Drew Burton

Designer: Daran Brossard

Creative Director: Mark Maziarz

Creative Director: Helena Skonieczny

Writer: Alex Schaeffer

Designer: Abbas Deidehban

Jr. Writer: Corey O’Brien

Jr. Designer: Max Matesen

Group Strategy Director: Scott Jensen

Strategy Director: Michael Lewis

Strategist: Luis Jasso

Jr. Strategist: Marquis Mahoney

Group Brand Director: Alexis Coller

Brand Director: Michal David

Sr. Brand Manager: Ali Arnold

Brand Manager: Ryan Rodriguez

Brand Coordinator: Makenna Magarity

Brand Coordinator: Lindsay Foregger

Business Affairs Director: Amy Jacobsen

Sr. Business Affairs Manager: Jennifer Jahinian

Business Affairs Coordinator: Joseph Pereira

Executive Film Producer: Molly McFarland

Sr. Film Producer: Brooke Horne

Jr. Film Producer: Nani Weinberg

Jr. Film Producer: Skyler Courter

Film Production Coordinator: Ian Donnelly

Production Company: Hungry Man

Director: Wayne McClammy

EP: Mino Jarjoura

Producer: Dave Bernstein

DP: Matthew Libatique

Editorial: Rock Paper Scissors

Editor: Christjan Jordan

Producer: Dani DuHadway


Color: Shed

Music: Beacon Street

Sound Design/Mix: HECHO EN 72

Production Company: HECHO EN 72
@TLStanleyLA terry.stanley@adweek.com T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.