Under the Influence

This burger chain showed mouldy food in its advertising

The campaign broke all the cardinal rules of advertising. But for one fast food company, it paid off.
Burger King flouted all the rules in its 2020 global advertising campaign. (Gene J. Puskar/The Associated Press)

In the food industry, the key marketing element is something called "taste appeal."

Every product label, every print ad, every television commercial and every online video is produced so that the food looks pristine and delicious. There are even people called "food stylists" who specialize in making food look great on camera. That's why it was so surprising when Burger King broke that golden marketing rule.

Back in 2020, Burger King launched a global advertising campaign. The purpose of the campaign was to communicate the company's commitment to dropping all artificial preservatives. That kind of announcement has been made by many food companies, and usually generates a yawn. But Burger King's announcement got instant attention because the company unveiled a "Mouldy Whopper."

It was a video showing a Whopper decomposing and rotting over a period of 34 days. The time-lapse ad showed a Whopper and its ingredients slowly collapsing and being engulfed in a furry mould. A date stamp showed the progress day-by-day.

The burger was filmed in excruciating close-ups. Bun, toppings and patty all getting furrier and furrier, finally coming to an inglorious blueish slump on the 34th day. The tagline was: "The beauty of no artificial preservatives." Burger King issued a statement saying it was committed to removing all preservatives, colours and artificial flavours from its food at all its locations worldwide.

Filming a decomposing burger broke all the rules of food advertising. It not only had zero "taste appeal," it was actually repulsive, but fascinating. You just had to watch. The results of the Moldy Whopper were surprising.

First, there were very mixed responses from the advertising and food industries. Some saluted the courage of Burger King, others considered it brand suicide. But the proof is always in the pudding, or between the buns, if you will.

The Mouldy Whopper campaign achieved around 8.4 billion organic media impressions, and 88 per cent of the articles were positive. The video was watched for over 1.4 million minutes on Facebook and research revealed that the Mouldy Whopper campaign reached a level of awareness 50 per cent higher than Burger King's 2019 Super Bowl commercial. For reference, a Super Bowl ad costs over $5 million to be put in front of 100 million sets of eyeballs, yet the Mouldy Whopper generated even more awareness from a static, inexpensively produced video on social media.

A survey of 2,000 people found that the probability of visiting Burger King had increased by 23 per cent as a result of the ad. In other words, the Mouldy Whopper made people actually want to eat at Burger King.


For more stories from Under the Influence, click or tap the play button above to hear the full episode. Find more episodes on the CBC Listen app or subscribe to the podcast.

now