Tasty Vs. Tasteless: Does Sex Sell?

When Carl’s Jr. (and sister brand Hardee’s) launches a new ad, people notice. Really, it’s hard not to. The formula is a simple one — find a sexy spokesmodel and have her do a lot of very sexy things before taking a bite of a burger. Past models include Kate Upton, Heidi Klum, and Paris Hilton. But the question always lingers… Does that actually sell burgers?

We were curious, so we did an in-depth analysis of this year’s Carl’s Jr. ad that ran during the Super Bowl. The ad features newcomer Charlotte McKinney walking through a farmer’s market, seemingly au naturel, discussing going “all natural,” before revealing that she is merely scantily clad and talking about her all natural burger from Carl’s Jr.

There are two ways to answer the question of whether the ad sells burgers: The first is to look at short-term sales prospects. The second is to look at how it’s building the Carl’s Jr. brand, leading to longer-term sales.



Short-term prospects

This ad definitely receives a lot of attention online, with over 10 million views on YouTube. In its “natural” context — on TV during the Super Bowl — it’s not as strong, with only 29% of viewers expressing interest in the ad. Remember, there are a lot of strong ads airing during the big game, so the competition, even for Ms. McKinney, is fierce.

Furthermore, only one in four (27%) viewers planned to visit a restaurant in the next 30 days. That compares to an average of 43% of viewers planning a visit after a typical fast food ad. That suggests that short-term prospects are relatively weak — this, in spite of the fact that the message of the ad is very relevant to viewers.

However, Carl’s reported that trial has been stronger than anticipated. How do we reconcile the two? There is one more factor that we have left out for short-term sales: Giving away food. Carl’s Jr. includes a coupon for the burger at the end of the YouTube video. Coupons are an easy way to drive short-term purchase, but they do nothing for long-term brand growth.

Long-term prospects

Fortunately, 94% of viewers remember that the ad is for Carl’s Jr. (The choice of Ms. McKinney was a particularly good choice — a more well-known model likely would have left more viewers focusing on her name rather than Carl’s Jr.’s.) The bad news is that over half of viewers find the ad offensive (52%), and irritating and annoying (51%). Ideally, food ads should be tasty, but 61% of viewers found this ad to be tasteless. And, a surprisingly large one-third (32%) of viewers felt worse about Carl’s Jr. after having seen the ad. That compares to the already unusually high average of 8% of viewers feeling worse about the sponsor of any given ad in the fast food category. 

How to improve

In short, this ad doesn’t work as it should. But that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t work better. The ad was intended to communicate a message of all-natural. However, Ms. McKinney does not look “natural” to viewers. (The ad team seems to be forgetting the difference between all-natural and au naturel.) One potential improvement would be picking a model that looks a bit more, well, natural.

Another way to improve the ad is to acknowledge the way emotion is really working. The intent is for the ad to sustain positive emotion throughout. However, in practice, it creates strong negatives up front, and a transition to positivity at the introduction of the brand: A classic problem-solution type emotional structure. Understanding that, Carl’s Jr. could have changed the voice-over to show the solution to a problem; e.g., Ms. McKinney does not need to walk around au naturel to experience an all-natural life, she can eat Carl’s Jr.’s new burger, instead.

The Super Bowl is a big stage, and brands feel pressure to go over the top with their advertising. Carl’s Jr. made a PR-worthy piece, but it may cost the brand in the long-term.

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