The Subservient Chicken was a unique marketing campaign for Burger King – the showing the potential of internet for marketing for the first time
At first, the campaign’s focus was squarely on television ads. Advertising agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky came up with the idea of a giant chicken man being told to carry out various tasks at the fancy of people to help Burger King reintroduce the slogan “have it your way” in its marketing of the TenderCrisp chicken sandwich. Television commercials were produced with a snarky vibe that was similar to the website, however, they are virtually forgotten at this point.
The website was a last-minute addition to the campaign, providing a unique chance to expand upon the TV concept and encourage audience participation. A simple idea: put the gigantic BK chicken from the advertising in front of a camera and let site users enter commands for the chicken to follow. Although the chicken would seem to be responding in real-time, the site has been pre-programmed to follow hundreds of directions.
It was supposed to be a PR stunt where, for 24 hours, the public could direct the chicken’s actions. However, when working on a campaign for another client, CPB discovered some cutting-edge software that allowed them to create an animated banner based on the keywords and phrases in a user’s request. Looking at the TV advertisement again helped spark the concept for the online hub.
They linked up with the Barbarian Group, and from that point on, BG provided the technology and advice to CPB.
The design team purposefully avoided making it easy for users by including more than just a handful of basic instructions. So they asked for assistance from the whole organization. They built a website to use internally as a joke. ‘They photoshopped one of the art directors onto the chicken costume, and asked, “If this website were real and you could ask the chicken to do anything, what would you ask it to do?” in a field at the bottom of the page. At that time, there were 200 participants, and data on what the chicken was asked to accomplish was compiled. Because the same questions kept coming up, they combed through the thousands and came up with a few hundred distinct actions. They used a list of those few hundred and then tacked an extra day onto the TV production schedule. They spent the day filming the chicken in one of the cameramen’s apartments. About 500 separate actions were compiled
Countless video snippets were recorded. Despite the lack of cutting-edge technology, they spent a month and a half entering 25,000 keywords into the database, covering three languages and a wide range of slang. To anybody using it, it must seem like magic; you can’t help but wonder, “How did it know that?” You toyed with it, thinking, “I’m going to stump this thing,” and then you completely failed.
The chicken was able to follow a wide variety of orders, from the obvious ‘swim’ and sit to the more unusual “Riverdance,” “walk like an Egyptian,’ and ‘perform the YMCA’. The website’s aesthetic was designed to be low-fidelity and gloomy, yet despite its sordid setting, the chicken proves to be surprisingly moral when it scolds the person looking at the camera if it becomes “dirty”. If a user proposes that it consume McDonald’s, the chicken will put a finger down its throat.
The site’s rollout was somewhat haphazard. Some blogs were used to post the links. Boing Boing picked it up because it was still in the early stages, and it spread naturally from there. They distributed links additionally too and had a mind-boggling one hundred thousand pageviews in one day. Then it went off immediately. It spread like a piece of news, and the news was that a major brand nobody had heard of before had created this unusual product.
Subservient Chicken was groundbreaking for the company since no one had ever done anything like it before. It was one of the first Internet advertising efforts to achieve true viral status, proving that consumers are willing to engage with businesses and spread the word if the concept is interesting enough.
The site received 8 million views a day, with visitors staying an average of 10 minutes. In 2004, this was great.