Consumers Love Carl’s Jr.’s All-Natural Burger, Hate the Sexed-Up Ad

A new study suggests fast-food diners may be becoming less receptive to sexploitation in marketing.

(Photo: Carl's Jr./Facebook)

Mar 15, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Josh Scherer has written for Epicurious, Thrillist, and Los Angeles magazine. He is constantly covered in corn chip crumbs.

According to a report by Advertising Age, sex isn’t selling quite like it used to.

Ten years ago, the marketing team at Carl’s Jr. took a leap of scantily clad faith. Instead of using its 30-second Super Bowl ad slot to sell consumers on the new Spicy BBQ Six-Dollar Burger’s premium ingredients, it gave Paris Hilton a bikini, a bucket of soapy water, and a cheeseburger and let her explain the product in just two words: “That’s hot.”

The ad was so successful that, the Carl’s Jr. website devoted solely to the ad campaign, crashed for a full 24 hours.

Carl’s Jr.’s latest installment in its decade-long campaign, which has legs in more ways than one, is for its All-Natural Burger, which boasts an antibiotic-free, hormone-free, steroid-free, grass-fed beef patty. The commercial features model Charlotte McKinney walking half naked through a farmers market while nearby men ogle and suggestively grope vegetables. She takes a bite of the burger; everyone swoons.

But when advertising research firm Ameritest showed the ad to its consumer panel, the response was less than stellar. Fifty-two percent of viewers found the ad offensive, and 51 percent found it “irritating and annoying.” Thirty-two percent said they felt worse about Carl’s Jr. after having seen the commercial, a massive uptick from the 8 percent average for all screenings of fast-food spots. The share of viewers who reported they were likely to eat at Carl’s Jr. in the next 30 days was also 16 percent below the average.

A spokesperson from Carl’s Jr. told Advertising Age the study “is not consistent with our sales results, which are the ultimate measure of any advertising’s success.”

Company spin notwithstanding, it’s possible the All-Natural Burger is successful despite its marketing campaign, not because of it. Carl’s Jr. proudly announces it has the fast-food industry’s first-ever all-natural burger—which research shows consumers have been clamoring for since at least last year.

A 2014 survey by restaurant research firm Technomic found that 72 percent of consumers were more likely to buy a product with a “natural” label than one without. Though hard sales numbers are not yet available, an investor report by Carl’s Jr. claims “sales of the All-Natural Burger have exceeded forecasts every week.”

As the old guard of fast-food chains continues to decline in popularity—McDonald’s profits dropped 30 percent in the third quarter of 2014 compared with the previous year—marketers are looking to new industry darlings such as Chipotle and Shake Shack for inspiration.

Both restaurants proudly boast “all-natural” and “antibiotic-free” labels on their meat products, and both restaurants have exploded in recent years. In the past year alone, Shake Shack’s revenue increased almost 41 percent; when the company went public in January, its shares more than doubled in value. Chipotle was the fastest-growing chain of the decade.

Deviating from the norm, neither restaurant uses nationwide television commercials to advertise. In trying to corner that ever-elusive millennial consumer, both have relied heavily on digital campaigns. Chipotle’s “Scarecrow” video on YouTube has 14 million views—almost 50 percent higher than Carl’s Jr.’s All-Natural Burger commercial. The ad promotes a smartphone game, extending the brand’s reach.

The fast-food giants of old could be following suit. After McDonald’s “Pay With Lovin’ ” campaign flopped—observers found it overly sentimental, if not manipulative—the chain, under new CEO Steve Easterbrook, seems to have committed further to diversifying the chain’s menu offerings.

A McDonald’s spokesperson announced last November that the chain would start reducing the inventory of ingredients held in restaurants so that it could one day phase out the use of artificial preservatives. More recently, it was announced that McDonald’s—which serves more nuggets and strips than any other chain in the world—would stop sourcing chickens treated with antibiotics important to human health.

Even though many consumers view ads for Carl’s Jr.’s first all-natural offering as sexist exploitation of the female form, the product’s success could be another indicator of a shift in the way America stuffs burgers into its collective face. That will have implications in many more arenas than just ad research.