In Consumer Chronicles, David Leibowitz offers insights and provocations surrounding the ways retail and consumer brands engage with you in the past, present, and future.
In time for Halloween, Burger King launched a campaign that uses voice recognition software in restrooms in select restaurants in Sweden and Denmark. According to Business Insider, if the phrase “canceled clown” (they prefer to spell the word with two L’s in Sweden) is repeated three times, the lights dim, and a vision of Ronald McDonald appears in the mirror.
But given the spats between Donald Trump and Sweden this year, and the peculiar choice of the phrase, most recently used in the presidential debates — is this also a dog whistle?
The campaign, developed by agency INGO Stockholm, and supported by social marketing, is part of a long-standing, but light-hearted, rivalry with the McDonald’s fast-food chain. The YouTube commercial of the stunt, uploaded on October 26th, has a description that reads:
“A few years ago, a particular clown got abruptly canceled from his long-standing job at a certain hamburger chain. This Halloween, he is back, at Burger King’s restrooms in Sweden. Summon him and you might be rewarded.”
The video, which already has over 356,000 views, shows a restaurant patron walking into the bathroom and uttering the phrase three times as the lights go out. We don’t get to see the apparition as the video fades to black and asks, “Do you dare make him appear?”
The advertisement then ends on the Burger King logo and calls upon digital natives to use the Twitter hashtag #cancelledclown for viral buzz. And it appears to be generating excitement. One user tweeted, “I MUST find out which Burger Kings are doing this!” In a smart move, Burger King hasn’t listed which restaurants feature the promotion. That prevents some locations from clogging up with additional bathroom traffic.
More importantly, like a scavenger hunt, the campaign urges customers to visit multiple locations searching for the few magic mirrors. And they might pick up a hamburger and French fries (do you call them “French Fries” in Sweden?) at each stop along the way.
But in addition to the excitement, it’s also causing some confusion. In response to the Business Insider promotion, a user tweeted, “I thought #cancelledclown was reserved for @realDonaldTrump.”
And a simple keyword search reveals that the same hashtag #cancelledclown was used in 2017 and 2018 by anti-Trump users. Is this a simple oversight by a marketing team? Possibly. But it’s more likely that an agency working for one of the most well-known brands on the planet would conduct a social keyword search. They’d have to at least check on the competition or review trademarks, right?
Which begs the question — is the target of Burger King Sweden actually U.S. President Donald Trump? Hashtag aside, the timing seems awfully coincidental.
Sweden and Trump are Not BFFs
At a rally in April, Trump cited a non-existent terrorist attack in Sweden to garner the support of border closings to refugees. “You look at what’s happening in Germany, you look at what’s happening last night in Sweden,” Trump said. “Sweden, who would believe this?”
The former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt was quick in rebuke on Twitter: “Sweden? Terror attack? What has he been smoking?” Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde said Trump’s comments were “factually wrong” on a televised program. And this has been going on for a while, as USA Today reported that Trump and the government of Sweden “don’t see eye to eye — on anything,” back in August 2019.
Trump Loves McDonald’s
It’s no secret that Trump loves fast food, and his favorite chain is McDonald’s. His typical meal is over 2,400 calories: two Big Macs, two Filet-o-Fish sandwiches, and a large chocolate shake, according to former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Could that be cause for heartburn at rival Burger King, too?
Do You Hear the Dog-Whistle?
While the Twitter hashtags may not be recent, the marriage of the words Trump and clown recently resurrected during the first televised presidential debate on September 29th. During a fiery exchange, Joe Biden asked the audience, “Folks, do you have any idea what this clown is saying?” which was in response to the constant interruptions of Donald Trump.
Later that night, he repeated the phrase as a result of Trump’s badgering. To the moderator, he said, “It’s hard to get any word in with this clown.” This had Twitter abuzz with “Joe Biden calls President Trump a clown.”
The next week, during a town hall, Biden said he regretted how he used the term — and the phrase was out in the ether again.
The timing seems uncanny. Did Burger King try to capitalize on the term just one month after the debate? They could have used any other term: Spooky Ronald. Killer Clown. Candyman?
So, is this just an odd accident by a marketing team that didn’t do their homework or actually a dog-whistle by a brand making a statement?
You can watch the video here: