On April 12, Burger King’s “Whopper Burger” sandwich made an abrupt and uninvited appearance in the homes of technology early-adopters with an advertisement which aired on popular late night television shows, “The Tonight Show” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” The sandwich, introduced in 1957 and predates both the home computer and the Internet, was featured in an ad designed to trigger Google’s voice-activated home smart-speaker with the line: “Okay, Google: What is the Whopper Burger?”
On cue, any home with a device with Google Assistant in range of the ad would be subjected to Wikipedia’s definition of the Whopper. According the Washington Post, within three hours the ad stopped working, presumably from an update by Google. According to a Fortune article, the Federal Trade Commission declined comment and did not indicate if it would intervene in similar cases in the future. For now, Burger King’s unique attempt to advertise was legal. However, the effort may have not been in the company’s best interest in terms of public relations.
First, the intended effect of the ad quickly backfired. Internet pranksters had responded to the ad by altering the burger’s Wikipedia definition to display things contrary to Burger King’s wishes. For a time, Wikipedia said the Whopper contained cyanide, caused cancer and was the worst hamburger product sold by Burger King. Certainly, a restaurant chain with more than 15,000 locations worldwide doesn’t want their public to wonder if the food they are served is safe.
More importantly, Burger King engaged in what many were claiming to be an invasion of privacy. By intentionally taking control of an audience’s personal technology without their consent, many complained that Burger King hacked them. This isn’t an activity Burger King wants to engage in. The company’s slogan is “Have it your way,” invoking the customer’s freedom of choice. Taking undue advantage of their technology certainly does not inspire a feeling of freedom.
Still, there can be a case that the ad was a success for the company. Burger King spokeswoman Dara Schopp said that there was a 300 percent increase in “social conversation” on Twitter as compared to the day before, indicating an increased buzz around the classic sandwich. Furthermore, The Verge pointed out that this may have been a deliberate play to get Burger King national media attention. I would argue, in this sense, Burger King came out on top in this campaign. I believe when the initial blow back dies down, Burger King will only be remembered as the company that pushed the limits and brought this possible privacy concern into the spotlight. The company didn’t engage in anything that could result in lasting damage, which is much better than what another more malicious group could potentially do if this isn’t addressed. Instead, Burger King will only be remembered as a conversation starter and not a real villain.