My favourite ad of all time: Burger King’s ‘Subservient Chicken’ from 2004

In an era when traditional media still dominated budgets, Burger King showed how a digital experience could be the star of a marketing campaign – simply by putting a man in a chicken suit, writes Cuckoo's Robert Davies

Back in 2004, Crispin, Porter & Bogusky created an interactive experience that revolutionised the way advertisers thought about engaging fans online. It’s been imitated many times since but no-one has ever recaptured its magic. A true original in every sense of the word.

It was of course the groundbreaking ‘Subservient Chicken’.

In the pre-iPhone era, whilst Facebook was only being used by a handful of university students, and people had to phone in sick to work instead of Whattsapping their boss, it showed that a marketer could do something fun and communicate a point of view without a television commercial or print ad.

Back in 2004, budgets supported traditional media and digital advertising played a backseat role to TV and print.

Digital communications typically leveraged assets developed for above-the-line materials and reformatted them for the digital space. ‘Subservient Chicken’ helped change that by demonstrating how a digital experience could be the star of an integrated marketing campaign.

The campaign brought a whole new meaning to ‘Have it your way’, the tagline the chain had recently revived and was centred on the idea that customers could order a chicken sandwich any way they liked.

That idea of customisation was perfectly suited to a digital experience and manifested itself in a submissive chicken character donning garters, dancing, or doing whatever it was told to do.

You saw a sparsely decorated living room, with a submissive mascot that would respond to your demands, even doing the moonwalk, throwing pillows or doing Tai Chi, if instructed. Everything looked as it was being shown on a live webcam, giving an almost seedy sex-site vibe.

Working in in digital creative agency at the time, I was blown away. I had been fooled into thinking it was a live webcam as the ‘chicken’ I saw on my computer screen was responding to my keyboard instructions in real time. How had they done this this? As I eventually found out, every command – an estimated 300 – 400 – had been filmed beforehand and coded to respond to typed demands. It was this attention to detail and high production values that enabled this trickery and created the magic.

Not only did it deliver on the brand promise ‘Have it your way’ but it got the kind of attention most agencies and clients only dream about: it went viral, with many visitors engaging with it without even knowing Burger King was behind it. Such was its success,

Burger King resurrected ‘Subservient Chicken’ in 2014 in honour of its 10-year anniversary,

Great work often takes a leap of faith, particularly by a client. It’s all too easy to follow a ‘best practice’ or hide behind a guideline. It’s no coincidence that the most memorable campaigns are those that initially take us outside of our comfort zones, and those clients who trust in their agencies creative expertise often benefit the most. The last thing they need is a ‘Subservient Agency’, not willing to challenge the status quo.

In the case of the ‘Subservient Chicken’, Burger King backed a creative idea that featured neither their products nor branding. How often do you see that? What it did do was capture the imagination of millions of people by letting them play and interact with the brand. Visitors were spending an average of six or seven minutes on the site and within a year it had drawn almost 400 million hits.

It’s interesting to think how the idea would have been executed today given the rise in AI, social media, voice and facial recognition and ability to capture user-data. No doubt these technologies could make the experience more immersive, intelligent and personalised but not without two fundamental features:

A great idea. And a brave client willing to take a risk.

Robert Davies is creative partner at Cuckoo, an independent creative agency in Singapore


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