Burger King’s Moldy Whopper: Breaking Into or Out Of the Future?

American’s favorite fast food, Burger King, recently went through a head-turning makeover with a campaign called Moldy Whopper. Was it worth the shock?

For the fast-food industry, the stake is now higher than it’s ever been. With health issues on the rise, consumers are constantly recommended and reminded to stay away from fast food. Meanwhile, consumers, especially millennials, are becoming more mindful about what they put into their bodies. Adopting a healthy diet is no longer just a disease preventive measure, it’s a lifestyle choice. To love yourself means nurturing your body with healthy, natural food.

Business sustainability, however, does not respond well to the fact that everyone should only have at most one fast food meal a week. One does not go too far into the future selling burger and fries that taste artificial preservatives. Among the ones at peril, Burger King takes up quite a significant share of mind when it comes to fast food and its harm. In fact, allegations have been made throughout the years about the company’s contribution to obesity and unhealthy eating behaviors in Western nations by producing products that contain large amounts of salt, fat, trans-fat and calories. Many consumer groups also accused the company and other fast-food brands of failing to provide healthier alternatives. Should the brand stay the way it was, it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine where it’d be heading in the future.

Burger King needed to do something, no doubt about that. But what would it be? And more importantly, would people buy it? One of the largest fast-food restaurant franchises in the world now decides to come “clean” – what could be convincing enough to make people believe that? One thing for sure. Such a change isn’t happening fast. A company doesn’t simply claim to be relevant; it has to prove.

So how did Burger King future proof itself?

To create a sensation with an unthinkable idea was what they did. On February 19th, 2020, Burger King launched an ad featuring the ugliest, most undesirable hamburger one has ever seen. That tasty Whopper you ate the other day just turned into a moldy, disgusting burger in a matter of 45 seconds. The ad was meant to be a celebration of the brand’s commitment to producing food without any artificial preservatives. The big initiative is that by the end of 2020, Burger King would have removed preservatives from the Whopper in most European markets and would roll out preservative-free Whoppers across the US.

The beauty of no preservatives was a remarkably creative idea that contributed to a strategic purpose. Staying relevant, for Burger King, meant that it needed to change consumers’ perception of its products, which would then become a long-term foundation to drive visits and sales—hence born the Moldy Whopper.

Of course, it’d be meaningless to make a loud statement if you can’t walk the talk. As part of a long-term plan, Burger King has already started renovating its food quality years ago. By working on its supply chain, cost structure, and staff training over the last five years, they certainly knew what they had to do to make their pledge convincing.

The challenge with future-proofing ideas

The Moldy Whopper was a great success in terms of virality. According to Verizon Media and Boxnet, the ad earned around 8.4 billion organic media impressions. On Facebook, it achieved almost 1.4 million total minutes viewed, with 39% of total viewers completing all 45 seconds of the video.

However, while most viewers considered the ad original and powerful, some didn’t see it in the same light. According to Spiked, a British internet magazine, while the ad succeeded in making a statement, it might not be taking the brand where it aims to be. By putting an emphasis on an ugly burger, its audacious act of defying basic advertising rules was not whetting anyone’s appetite. The magazine also deemed the campaign as “’part of an insidious drive by corporations to boost their social and moral authority”, as well as an unnecessary attempt to address a need that was never called for [preservative-free burgers].

But the biggest challenge lies in that one bottom-line question: Would the message encourage viewers to consider visiting the restaurant?

In the short term, No. According to ad results, the Moldy Whopper did not induce instant cravings among gen pop viewers. 26% of viewers were turned off from purchasing, and the purchase intent was significantly weak. By leading viewers from a positive state of mind at the first few seconds to a shockingly disgusting transformation, Burger King might have established an unprecedented success in turning off customers’ appetite.

Are we getting it all wrong?

Amidst the tumult of criticisms and diverging opinions, however, it’s important to remind ourselves of the purpose the Moldy Whopper was meant to serve. “No one in our office was expecting consumers to jump in the car and drive desperately to Burger King to buy a Whopper just because we removed artificial preservatives. We are doing this because it’s the right thing to do, and we don’t see a future where fast food brands will have artificial preservatives”, Global CMO Fernando Machado wrote in his article on Adweek.

When we view the campaign as part of a greater vision, criticisms then emerge as an inevitable consequence. Customers weren’t exactly expecting fast food to go healthy, so yes, it had to be taken that far. To get people to turn their heads, pay attention, and keep in mind what the brand had to say required something bold and different. Sending out an outstanding message just doesn’t get along well with pleasing everyone.

And yes, the ad’s gross imagery might have turned some cars around. Yet, without having created a combination of negative emotions, the Moldy Whopper couldn’t have captured such an impressive amount of attention. Burger King was not the first one to announce its commitment to dropping artificial preservatives, which is why the initial negative effect was the necessary short-term sacrifice to avoid the fate of coming and going without leaving any lasting impression. While the 45-second roller coaster was undoubtedly shocking, the overriding impression for viewers was indeed its message of no-preservative food. Therefore, it’ll be the powerful statement that the audience remembers in the long run, not the one-time rotten burger that would be quickly wiped away from their visual memory.

Conclusion (for now)

The Moldy Whopper campaign was an impressive first shot, but it’s still early to say if Burger King has succeeded in future-proofing itself. It’ll be the customers who decide whether or not the brand sticks to its message and stands for something greater. But for now, it’s safe to say that while Burger King’s Whopper might be rotten, the brand is becoming fresher than ever before.


  1. https://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/03/nyregion/03fat.html
  2. https://www.businessinsider.com/the-strategy-behind-burger-king-moldy-whopper-ad-campaign-2020-2
  3. https://www.adweek.com/brand-marketing/5-lessons-burger-king-learned-by-unleashing-the-moldy-whopper/
  4. http://www.acemetrix.com/insights/blog/burger-kings-moldy-whopper-succeeded-miserably-heres-why/
  5. https://www.adweek.com/creativity/why-burger-king-is-proudly-advertising-a-moldy-disgusting-whopper/

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