Burger King’s whopping credibility gap

It’s a neat trick if you can get away with it, the equivalent of gesture politics in marketing communications. It’s called making a virtue of necessity. Burger King has just done it and apparently got away with it.

Shortly – very shortly – before Ofcom published much more stringent guidelines on advertising to, and around, children, BK grandly announced that it intends to dispense with any ads aimed at the same, or placed around their programmes, with effect from December 22. What could be more self-denying and responsible than that?

Whether BK’s high-profile “Road to Damascus” conversion will do it much good is quite another matter. The burger company’s tender consideration for the healthy development of its younger consumers sits ill with the born-again machismo of “Manthem”. For the so-far-unenlightened, Manthem (Man anthem, geddit?) is Burger King’s newly US-imported promotional paean to all things manly, which is being used to underpin sagging UK sales of Double Whoppers. During the course of the catchy little ad ditty, men affect to be Men, primarily by spurning the siren temptations of “chick food”. You get the picture: it’s BK’s take on the Bloke Coke phenomenon.

Of course, there’s nothing explicitly contradictory about playing to manly virtues while simultaneously displaying exquisite concern for the welfare of kiddies. It’s just that, when you juxtapose the two things, BK’s commitment to healthy eating looks about as sincere as…. McDonald’s to salads during its World Cup Bigger Big Mac promotion.

Fast-food companies, and indeed the processed food sector as a whole, really do need to engage in more joined-up thinking about their overall media positioning these days. Slick, tactical cynicism ? running with the hare, but hunting with the hounds – can have some nasty, unforeseen consequences.

Digital honeytrap
The likes of BK and Cadbury are being fairly philosophical about having to scale down their commitment to traditional TV advertising – partly because they see a more interesting pot of gold elsewhere, in digital media. One of the delights of, for example, social networking sites is that they have the youthful profile that TV by and large lacks; another is that they are pretty much regulation free.

Less delightful is their anarchic nature, their ability to bite back. Command and control brand owners are having trouble with this. Phoney bloggers get found out, as Reckitt Benckiser discovered to its cost with Cillit Bang; Coke took a while to get round the Mentos problem; and General Motors committed a classic error in soliciting advertising ideas for its Chevrolet Tahoe, the consequences of which rapidly reverberated around the world.

The message is clear. Corporate hypocrisy may have been condoned in the soggy old days of “traditional” media, but few things are calculated to cause more damage to brand reputations than exposure to censure and ridicule in the harsher, more transparent environment of the new.

A particularly tempting Achilles’ heel is the processed food industry’s love affair with “trans” or “hydrogenated” fats. Though these have been in production for the best part of 100 years, only recently have they come under careful scrutiny. The science pinning them to heart disease is not altogether watertight, but the rush to judgement (and in the case of McDonald’s and Yum, the rush for cover) has begun. When lawsuits threaten, companies would be well advised to look more carefully at the image they are projecting.

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