New BK campaign does a great job touting grills, not fast food

As if poor beleaguered Burger King didn’t have enough problems, what with its owners and operators in a bad way, there was last week’s Slushygate. (Coca-Cola apologized to BK for illegally influencing a test of its Frozen Coke drink in 2002.) In the last six months, the ailing No. 2 fast-food company was sold by Diageo to a consortium led by the Texas Pacific Group. Interim agencies did interim campaigns; new owners hired new BK execs, who brought in a new lead creative agency, which had a new ecd. (That’s about five degrees of newness.) By the time Y&R was hired, it had about two weeks to produce 14 commercials, not exactly an optimum condition under which to reinvent a lagging brand.

The new positioning—to go back to Burger King’s simplest, greatest asset, the fire grill—makes sense. It’s an evocative association from BK campaigns past, and the thrilla of the grilla (as two guys in a recent FedEx commercial put it) is a strategy that can modernize the brand. As any George Foreman fan knows, grilling is ostensibly healthier and better tasting. The problem, though, is making the link to food from Burger King grills, as opposed to your own.

One spot manages to do just that. It’s perfectly executed, simple and fresh. Two young women have a hard time dragging a Weber grill out of the basement of a New York brownstone and up the steps to the unforgiving sidewalk. Both the grill and the cement look pretty cold and cruel. “There are 8 million barbecue grills in the naked city,” the announcer, actor Len Cariou, intones, “and almost no place to use them. But that doesn’t stop you or us.” The spot then promotes BK’s new “fire-grilled Chicken Caesar Club” and ends with a cut showing the woman in cool cropped pants using an enormous, motorcycle-type chain to attach the grill to the stairway.

The imagery of confinement and dirty cement with not a tree in sight certainly conjures up a desire to hop into an air-conditioned Burger King.

But another spot, “Neighborhood,” doesn’t really connect the dots—and neither do the rest. It’s nicely shot, showing a line of suburban driveways and, in each, a homeowner maniacally hosing down and cleaning his/her car. Into this automotive love match comes a guy kicking his grill down the driveway. He subsequently starts tenderly cleaning and hosing the thing down. “Isn’t it nice to see when someone’s got their priorities straight? We do at Burger King, so we cook every Whopper to fire-grilled perfection.”

That’s funny, and the image of the guy with his grillfriend sticks. But if you live to clean your grill, why go to Burger King? Why not just consummate the deal with your own Weber?

A third spot, to be released around the Fourth of July and introducing the “Great American Burger,” has the same credulity problem: It’s supposed to be a flashback to a hapless dad of the ’60s in the backyard, smoking out the grill, and it has some amusing visual details. “You watched him,” the announcer says, by this time sounding like a parody of the Miller High Life spots. “Stay back. … This is man’s work. … The good news is, we watched him too. … Come on over. The fire’s ready. Dad would be proud.”

Wait a minute. Are they saying that Dad, who had a backyard, a “Kiss the Cook” apron and an adoring wife standing by his side with the raw patties, would be proud that you go to Burger King? What a tribute!

The campaign also features versions of a big, sweeping, emotional anthem spot that is head-scratchingly retro. Vintage “Burger King Town” mixed with Reagan’s “Morning in America,” the ads even begin with the Hal Riney-esque announcer (still Cariou) saying, “Right now, somewhere in America, someone’s got a grill going.” He goes on, matching his gravelly voice to the wildly inflated copy.

I know this is advertising that’s supposed to build emotion and even result in a little catch in the throat, but surely the Whopper cannot be considered, as announced, “the finest food on this green earth.”

One version even includes a shot of a church steeple accompanied by swelling music (eating grilled burgers is a religious experience? God is in the pickles?). The sweeping visuals, from the mountains to the valleys to the inner cities thick with smog, show every kind of American; each one stands alone on an empty road, over an open grill, waving. It’s like those Saturn spots, but this time we’re passing through Whopperville. But at least Saturn offered defined life stages that we move out of, like college. Here we seem to be facing a lifetime of grilling purgatory.

The tag, “Come on over. The fire’s ready,” accompanied by a flaming logo, is fine—far superior to McDonald’s latest inspiration, “I’m lovin’ it.” Aside from sounding like Liza Minelli on a bad day (“I love it! I love it! I love it!”), the McD’s slogan is totally empty if the chain can’t deliver on cleanliness and service.

Same with the BK spots. In the end, this new campaign is totally persuasive about the sanctity of the grill. We just need to know why we should leave our Webers to go to Burger King.