Jump. Sit. Fight. Turn off the lights. Swim. Do the YMCA.
Type in any one of these commands at SubservientChicken.com, and you can watch, via prerecorded webcam footage, a person in a chicken suit obey. This bizarre website is part of an advertising campaign launched by fast-food chain Burger King in April 2004. The restaurant launched this viral advertising campaign after the reinstating of its signature motto, “Have it your way.” The Subservient Chicken was subsequently created as “Chicken the way you like it.”
Although the Subservient Chicken is old news, particularly by the standards set by our fast-paced Internet culture, I think it serves as a great example of the ways in which the advent of new media has allowed advertising to move in an entirely new direction.
Gone is the old model of mass marketing. Today, advertisers are focusing more and more on making advertisements that consumers can engage in. Considering the significant changes the digital age has brought along in the past ten years, it makes sense that advertisers would change their model. Consumers today are living in a media- and advertising-saturated environment; they’ve become smarter, more cynical and less accessible.
Think about the Superbowl. Every year, advertisers shell out millions of dollars to have their commercials play, and the rest of the country spends much of the next few days talking about them. But a week later, you probably remember maybe half of all the advertisements you saw. A month later, even fewer. By the time the next Superbowl rolls around, you might remember one or two specific ads, but for the most part, you’ve forgotten.
The model of Internet advertising is entirely different. First of all, the production and distribution costs are incredibly low. For example, to make the Subservient Chicken, all that was needed was an actor, a cheap webcam (to increase the sense of authenticity), a living room, a day or two to film the Chicken performing roughly four hundred commands, and a team to build the website. The cost was only $50,000. The website wasn’t promoted using any formal ad campaign. Instead, it was spread virally; the link was posted in various chatrooms and on different blogs. And as a marketing message, the commercial yielded a strong organic growth, where the message was easily sustained for a long period of time. So intrigued were viewers by the ostensibly “live” performance that they passed on the link to their friends, and by October 2004—a mere six months after the site had first been launched—the site had generated 338 million total hits.
So what does this mean for consumers? Well, it’s not necessarily a bad development. Advertisers are trying to steer away from the traditional methods of advertising, where ads are forceful and abrasive. Advertisements no longer need to interrupt what people are interested in; instead they have become what people are interested in. Ads are more engaging and relevant to the consumer–meaning I am less likely now to bump into those annoying commercials for Hefty trash bags, whereas my dad probably won’t be seeing ads for the new Judd Apatow comedy. Even better, advertising–which is arguably, in some ways, an artistic medium–are more creative and innovative, utilizing all the tools the digital environment has to offer.
But what’s dangerous about interactive advertising is the way in which the consumer ends up working for the producer–or, in other words, the Subservient Chicken has created a subservient audience. Interactive advertising has not stopped the efforts to control consumer decisions; rather it has gone about this task clandestinely, under the guise of entertainment. This is why media literacy is so important. We can enjoy watching a man in a chicken suit pretend to lay an egg at our command, but we need to be aware of what messages are being sent to us and who is sending them.