You Cant Beat Their Meat

Photo by Tenaya HillsThey say timing is everything in life—that and good veins—so you'll understand my sorrow when on the very day I finally got started on that story about Carl's Jr.'s distinctive and disgusting advertising campaign there came news that Andrew Puzder—yes, the Andrew Puzder, president and CEO of CKE Restaurants Inc., which owns Anaheim-based Carl's Jr.—had been forced to resign from the board of governors of Thomas Aquinas College.

Puzder got the boot because of the recent Carl's Jr. commercials featuring Playboy's Hugh Hefner ostensibly talking about having sex with different women but actually talking about the wide variety of hamburgers at Carl's Jr. Aquinas, a small Catholic college in Ventura County, said Hefner and Playboy "stand for hedonism and unbridled pleasure-seeking, and that is impossible to reconcile with what we stand for." It was a tough break for Puzder, who, after all, had to go through high school with the name Puzder, but I guess you can see Aquinas' point.

My point is that I'm screwed. I've been intrigued by the Carl's Jr. campaign that has made fun of its workers and customers while associating eating meat with having sex. Most stunning, though, is how all of it is predicated on a counterintuitive marketing move: showing Carl's Jr. burgers plopping like cow pies, and people sucking fries and employing them as scooping tools for dumped chili. And the sounds: masticating slurps and crunches so visceral it seems you're listening to the gastric juices at work.

I wanted to write about how the Los Angeles ad firm of Mendelsohn/Zien convinced a company founded by Catholic sprite Carl Karcher, a company that until recently featured the mischievous Happy Star in its ads, to become, if not advertising's bad boy, at least the kid who'd eat a scab for a quarter. I also wanted to know how a campaign pushing food could be so successful—and, given its marathon length, I assume it's very successful—when it makes the food look anything but appetizing.

But, like I said, on the very day I decided to finally do this, the Puzder story broke and so my call to Mendelsohn|Zien got off to a shaky start. The woman on the other end said they had been instructed to route all calls regarding Carl's Jr. ads back to CKE. I told her that I wasn't interested in a news story about the Aquinas issue, I really wanted to talk about the campaign itself, why it works, blah, blah. I believe I may have even used the word brilliant—which is something you do in my business when you're drowning. The woman seemed genuinely touched and solemnly said, "Thank you," before telling me, again, to call CKE. You can pretty much guess how that went.

In such situations you're left talking to other journalists, in this case Bob Garfield, Advertising Age columnist and National Public Radio commentator. Garfield explained that "the Carl's ads target 16-year-old boys. They don't care how vulgar or how repulsive their ads seem to everyone else, as long as 16-year-olds like them. They're successful in selling to 16-year-old boys, abusing the sensibilities of many non-16-year-old boys who have to put up with this crap. It's just one of advertising's many embarrassments."

Okay. Garfield? Not a fan. And though I think Carl's Jr. is aiming a little lower and higher—14- to 30-year-olds for whom the three-second rule regarding dropped food is not just a lifestyle but a necessity—I think Garfield is correct. In fact, the Hefner spot seems mild, even sophisticated, in comparison to what came before it: a sexy young woman slowly suckling at a hamburger while grinding her groin into an undulating mechanical bull, all to the dulcet tones of Foghat's "Slow Ride." The Hefner spot's most disturbing image is the 77-year-old's terrapin-like snipes at the burger, so labored as to suggest that he eats neither Carl's burgers in particular nor solid food in general.

Carl Olson, editor of the Catholic magazine Envoy, said in a Los Angeles Times story that the Hefner ad was objectionable because, "It bothers us that a company founded by a Catholic would be using a man in their commercials known to the world because of his pornography. He's equating a variety of burgers with a variety of sexual partners. What is the connection between selecting a burger and your sex life? It really takes the term meat market to a different level."

Olson's statement tells you a few things. One, Envoy magazine is hilarious. And two, Carl's Jr. sex is strictly man on top.

"They're disenfranchising women and other adults who patronize their business," Garfield said. "It's a scorched-earth approach that says it's perfectly acceptable to insult the many to get at the few. This campaign has always been about cynicism, about nothing but appealing to the core audience. [The Aquinas incident] is unlikely to change anything."

Indeed, the Hefner ads are still all over the TV and the Carl's Jr. website. I went to the Carl's restaurant that sits next to its Anaheim headquarters to find out what the target audience thought of all of this. There, while enjoying my usual No. 8 combo—Charbroiled Sante Fe Chicken Sandwich (I used to get the Charbroiled BBQ Chicken Sandwich, but a man grows)—I asked a few patrons about the dustup until people started looking at me odd.

I talked to three men—ranging in age from 19 to 28—and one woman, 31. No one was familiar with the Aquinas incident and no one said it mattered. Only the woman said she considered some of the ads gross—"kinda"—while the men said they found the Carl's ads amusing—"kinda." One, Rich Leisl of Anaheim, said Jack in the Box ads were "way funnier." All four agreed the ads had nothing to do with their decision to eat at Carl's Jr.

"That stuff doesn't really affect me," said Leisl, 28, neatly wiping a trail of Sourdough Bacon Ranch Cheeseburger from the side of his mouth.


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