Diego Cerrone
Apr 3, 2020

A love story about food, dancing and behavioural economics

You've heard a lot of debate around this Burger King ad. But here's a behavioural economics take on why I don't like it.

A love story about food, dancing and behavioural economics

I am Italian and like every other Italian, I love food. This passion is in my roots, an essential companion of the beauty of my country and one of the key elements that makes me… who I am! I love junk food too! Let’s be honest, practically everyone likes junk food—even fitness purists who convince themselves otherwise.

Humans have psychological mechanisms that respond positively to the sight, smell, and taste of foods rich in sugars and fats. So I was quite shocked in February when Burger King made headlines because of its ad showing a Whopper going mouldy, meant to draw attention to the chain's move away from preservatives and artificial flavors. Many marketers have praised its transparency, whilst others have openly criticised. I belong to the latter group and have turned to the principles of behavioural economics to support my opinion.

Marketers as behavioural scientists

As marketers, our distinct role is to persuade consumers to choose our brands over others. To get people to behave the way we want. To profitably get more people to buy more things, on more occasions, at higher prices. We are the behavioural scientists of commerce. Behavioural economics is the study of why we choose to buy what we buy and gives us a better understanding of why we humans behave as we do.

In 2015, The Economist listed Daniel Kahneman as the seventh most influential economist in the world. He had already won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002. Funny thing was Kahneman wasn’t an economist. But his research on the irrational workings of the human mind had been so important it rocked every field of human endeavor where we make choices. In marketing, his influence has been profound.

Kahneman wrote a fantastic book entitled Thinking Fast and Slow which was worthwhile but tough to get through— like eating a salad you know you need to finish. Kahneman believes in the dual-system model of the human mind. He shows us that 95% of our decisions are made emotionally and instinctively by System 1, not rationally, by System 2.

System 1 is dominant, fast and powerful. It’s our emotional, instinctual brain, the part that makes an irrational decision like buying a new phone when you already have a functioning one, or justifies the spending for a nice holiday. System 2 is instead slow and limited, devoted to rational decision-making. This is the part that chooses health insurance. Think about the amount of time we spend researching and weighing up a variety of options to find the best rate. Tiring and not exciting.

Our brain hates using energy. It likes patterns, familiarity and simplicity. This is known as 'cognitive ease' and it is why companies spend so much money on celebrity endorsements, ad campaigns and jingles. Moreover, Kahneman uses the acronym WYSIATI (What You See Is All There Is) to describe the cognitive bias which explains how irrational we are when making decisions and how little it matters to us.

For years, the traditional model of advertising has assumed people process advertising messages rationally. According to behavioural economics, people instead react emotionally. Individual opinions about brands are volatile and behaviour patterns are messy. Buyers of premium brands also buy private labels. Fast-food customers like healthy food too. Coke buyers also buy Pepsi. Our opinions about brands fluctuate depending on mood and occasion, and most people don’t have strong beliefs about brands. No surprise we have started questioning the existence of brand loyalty. People don’t have relationships with brands, don’t want to be their friends and are not waiting to engage with them. At best, brands represent a useful shortcut in the decision-making process.

So what does all this have to do with the recent Burger King campaign?

People have reacted in different ways to the new Burger King campaign. From a behavioural science point of view, Burger King’s ad represents a curious use of marketing money.

Let me explain.

Firstly, System 1 responds to stimuli. Based on the earlier mentioned WYSIATI cognitive bias, we are irrational when making decisions. In this case, our brain metaphorically asks the question, “What is it?”. The answer is simple: “Rotten food”!

Secondly, as per Phil Barden in Decoded, we are known to first process any new stimulus from a brand (advertising, packaging, activation) based on our intuition and past experiences locked in our memory structures. In this case, the memory structure would be “Burger King and rotten food”.

Thirdly, the category is all about indulgent, tasty and delicious food. It’s all about enjoyment. Rotten food and enjoyment have no association. Being preservative-free is far from being one of the main drivers for this category—and unconsidered when in desperate need for fast food. Hopefully the logo is such low contrast (especially in OOH formats) that people may not attribute the image to the brand.

Food for thought

Surprisingly (or maybe not) the first YouGov results are showing that the campaign is not the disaster we predicted:

  • Feeling good about Burger King’s Food +21.4%
  • Association to high quality ingredients +23.5%
  • Cool brand consideration +14.7%
  • Association to real and authentic +20.5%
  • Brand I associate with +18.7%

This kind of research is very much a System 2 (rational thinking) measure of a System 1 (intuition and instinct) situation. For important questions we are likely to consciously activate System 2. Ask anyone if they will feel good about a brand that claims no additives and they will say yes.

According to David Ogilvy: “Consumers don’t think how they feel, they don’t say what they think, and they don’t do what they say.” Nobody can be aware of all the subconscious processes that feed into the decisions they make.

Burger King global CMO Fernando Machado

Being subversive and pushing creative boundaries is in Fernando Machado’s DNA. The Burger King global CMO, interviewed by Contagious, has mentioned “If I wanted to trigger short-term sales, I would have run a promotion and trigger short-term sales within minutes. I know that nothing beats the promos.”

I could be wrong, but this sounds like another of the many stunts BK, under Machado’s direction, has created. Cool, bold, risky and disruptive, but also seemingly disjointed.

Instead of designing its original choreography, it looks like BK wants to engage in a 'Mephisto Waltz' (in astronomy: when two black holes are locked in a dance around one another, inching closer and closer to a singularity, imploding and taking both out in the process) with McDonald’s; whereas McDonald’s continues to dance to its own beat, not caring who is watching. 

Diego Cerrone is head of strategy at Wavemaker in Hong Kong.

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