Carl’s Jr. Ads, Once Uncomfortably Horny, Are Now Just Numbingly Bland

The chain's new campaign won't offend you, but that's not to say you'll like it

A woman talking to a talking star in a Carls Jr. ad
A talking star now anchors the advertising for once-provocative marketer Carl's Jr. and sister brand Hardee's.
Carl's Jr / Hardee's

It was weird when, just a few years ago, fast food chain Carl’s Jr. really wanted you to have sex with a hamburger. But now it feels like the brand barely even wants you to get to first base.

Today, Carl’s Jr. and sister brand Hardee’s unveiled their newest marketing campaign, and quite a few industry observers were curious to see whether the chain would finally emerge from a period of uncertainty around how it should approach its marketing.

The brand officially renounced its 15-year horndog advertiser phase in 2017 with an ad that featured fictional founder Carl Hardee Sr. arriving to clean up the marketing mess made by his son (Carl Jr.). Vowing to put burgers before boobs, the new spokesman promised that a new era was nigh.

Instead, what followed was an even more turbulent time for the Carl’s Jr. brand, with its CEO exiting—after a failed nomination to become President Donald Trump’s secretary of labor—and its creative account going into review after six years with 72andSunny, which had followed a lengthy run with agency Mendelsohn Zien (creator of the infamous 2005 Paris Hilton ad for Carl’s Jr.).

The Carl’s Jr. account ended up with Havas, which created a series of spots voiced by Matthew McConaughey (though otherwise forgettable). The Hardee’s account split off to Arnold. Then, with the arrival of former Popeyes exec Chad Crawford as chief brand officer for Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, the account suddenly boomeranged back to 72andSunny.

So would the new ads be eye-popping and prurient? Or perhaps, picking up where the agency left off, intriguingly meta and self-aware?

Unfortunately, the answer is “neither.” The new campaign, “Feed Your Happy,” isn’t much of anything at all except a broadly generic tagline and a somewhat annoying talking star.

As you can see in the first spot above, a woman sits in a boring meeting, thinking about food. Carl’s Jr.’s logo, “Happy Star,” now animated and chatty, sits next to her, encouraging her to skip out for a burger. While the food shots look nice enough, the spot is otherwise just surprisingly lifeless.

In another ad, we see Happy Star telling a man to bypass his protein bar in favor of—you’ll never guess—a burger.

In a rather lofty statement about the campaign launch, Crawford describes the new spots as a key moment of transition for the brand:

“Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s have always remained impossible to ignore, and this new brand campaign continues that tradition in a relatable, memorable and humorous way. A true stepping stone from our past to our future, the new direction leans into their shared equity with highly appealing menu innovation and the beloved mascot Happy Star. Through research, we have uncovered that 71% of Americans agree that the best part of the week is enjoying delicious food, which is why our brands are dedicated to continuing to deliver craveable options that allow you to Feed Your Happy.”

Setting aside that the work feels arguably derivative of rival Jack in the Box’s mascot-driven marketing—and more generously setting aside the fact the campaign references a 24-year-old catchphrase from Jerry Maguire—there’s also just not much here for the brand to own and build on.

72andSunny New York creative director Nick Kaplan says the thread tying it all together is that the work centers on “Happy Star calling out truths of adulthood.” That’s certainly fertile ground that many brands have had fun mining—most notably another 72andSunny client, Halo Top, which enjoyably plumbed the depths of existential dread with its brilliantly written “Ice Cream for Adults” campaign.

This time around, though, we get the drab without the delight. And while Carl’s  Jr. was right to move post its lengthy era of objectification-focused advertising, it’s still jarring to see how the brand has shifted since running spots like this one in 2012:

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