Crunching the numbers on BK’s Mouldy Whopper. It was a creative gambit that worked

—In highly competitive categories, moonshot creative can be the only way for brands to break through, says Zerotrillion’s Aubrey Podolsky—

In the days following the launch of Burger King’s new “Mouldy Whopper” campaign, the internet’s opinion engine revved up. Arguments both for and against abound—with advertising and restaurant industry vets, business writers, media commentators, pretty much everyone really, weighing in.

Some loved it for its boldness. Some hated it, claiming a brand should never show its product in such a negative light. Still others saw it as just another transparent ad agency grasp for awards show glory.

The “Mouldy Whopper” was clearly inspired by an infamous story about how McDonald’s food can sit at room temperature for years and still be free of mould or visible decay. The Burger King ad used time-lapse imagery of its Whopper, which rapidly develops mould, paying off with a line announcing that its iconic burger is now free of artificial preservatives.

“We believe advertisers today must continually seek to deliver moonshot creativity, and we support it wherever it’s being made.”

So, a fast food chain used close-up photography of a (very) mouldy burger in an attempt to sell more burgers. A move that, no debate, was a creative gamble. But was it worth it?

To put aside the conjecture and attempt to answer that question, the team at Zerotrillion worked with its research partner Hotspex to quickly design and deploy some consumer research.

We surveyed 344 customers in Burger King’s demographic in the U.S., focusing on three key research objectives: Did consumers find it as “talk-worthy” as our industry peers? Did the creative answer the brief, communicating the lack of artificial preservatives? And did the blatant shot at McDonald’s land a direct hit?

Both the “for” and “against” arguments tend to focus on one key outcome of this campaign: that it commands attention. Our research showed that it is indeed talk-worthy, with 35% of respondents saying they would talk about Burger King with family or friends after watching this ad.

Why? “Because brands succeed when their communications are distinct and coherent,” said Hotspex CEO Shane Skillen. “Its uniqueness in the food category makes it worth talking about. Fully 69% of respondents said this video was ‘very different,’ and another 24% said it was  ‘somewhat different’ to other fast food ads.”

But, he added, where “highly creative” work often gets lost is its coherence.

So, was it effective in convincing viewers of its preservative-free primary message? We found that after watching the ad, 81% agree (strongly or somewhat) that Burger King does not use artificial preservatives. That’s creative efficacy.

An interesting side benefit of this campaign is that viewers were also persuaded to believe that Burger King uses high-quality ingredients: 81% agreed with this proposition.

Finally, what of the decision to take direct aim at McDonald’s? After watching the video, 75% of respondents believed that Burger King’s ingredients were of superior quality than McDonald’s, a win in and of itself. And this is where it gets even more interesting: It also moved the needle on competitive purchase intent, with 62% saying they were more likely to purchase from Burger King over McDonald’s after watching this ad.

It can be scary, but all-or-nothing creative risks are one of the few avenues for meaningful growth in highly competitive categories. That’s why we wanted to crunch the numbers and see if this particular risk was likely to pay off. We believe advertisers today must continually seek to deliver moonshot creativity, and we support it wherever it’s being made.

While this research is an early indication, only time will tell if sales increase. For now, we’re calling it a win, and we applaud the effort by the brand and its agencies. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to finish lunch before it goes bad.

Aubrey Podolsky, is the executive strategy director at Zerotrillion.