'Simpsons' fans have it their way

Burger King site renders special ani characters for consumers

NEW YORK -- Burger King's latest film promotion -- a SimpsonizeMe.com site that allows consumers to turn digital photos into animated, yellow versions of themselves and has had nearly 32 million hits since its Monday launch -- is the fast-food chain's latest effort to "push the envelope" with cutting-edge technology and original content in its entertainment-based marketing initiatives.

"Historically, what we've done a lot of is borrowing content from our partners, and now we're much more active in developing more of our own proprietary content," said Brian Gies, vp marketing impact at Burger King. "We're taking advantage of the advancement in technology, and we're accessing broader categories outside of feature film as well, like video games and music. There are not a whole lot of folks who are taking these kinds of risks. We're pushing the envelope every time we create a new promotion."

Since its Subservient Chicken Web site, which drew a million visitors in just its first week online in April 2004, Burger King has tried to focus on innovation to engage consumers. The site, which was created to look as if it utilizes a webcam, depicts an actor in a chicken suit who immediately responds when users type in their commands. In what turned out to be an extremely effective viral marketing campaign, the site took literally the Burger King ad slogan, "Get chicken just the way you like it." The Subservient Chicken character was used in subsequent Burger King ad campaigns.

For its spring 2005 promotion for "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith," Burger King created an online Darth Vader "20 Questions" game in which visitors secretly chose a subject and then answered yes or no to a series of up to 20 questions from Darth Vader, who more often than not, according to blogs, got it right.

A few months later, Burger King might have pushed the envelope a bit too far. To introduce its Chicken Fries product, the chain launched another viral marketing campaign with a faux metal band named Coq Roq that featured music videos, downloadable ringtones and band merchandise for sale on its Web site. The fictional band, which performed wearing chicken masks to parody the mask-donning style of heavy metal band Slipknot, also appeared in TV ads.

There also was a MySpace page created for Coq Roq that features bios, pictures and songs. But controversy over the Coq Roq campaign, including complaints over double entendres and sexual innuendo in the band's name and songs, as well as a threatened lawsuit by Slipknot, forced Burger King to request that some of the Coq Roq content be changed.

Then in July 2006, in a huge step toward producing its own original content, Burger King and its ad agency, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, said that they were soliciting a movie deal for a film titled "Above the King," a comedy about a teen misfit who lives in an apartment above a Burger King restaurant and develops an unlikely friendship with an aristocrat. Indeed, the major shift in the chain's marketing strategy has been orchestrated in concert with CP+B, which took over Burger King's ad account in January 2003.

Gies said Burger King has had many meetings with producers, directors and studios about making the film. "The majority of the meetings have been met with a great deal of receptivity," he said. "We have a couple of options from a production perspective as well from a distribution perspective."

For the 2006 holiday season, Burger King in partnership with Microsoft integrated its own proprietary characters from its ad campaigns such as the King, the Subservient Chicken, Whopper Jr. and Dr. Angus into three Xbox and Xbox 360 video games that it sold for $3.99 in its locations along with the purchase of a value meal.

An advertiser creating and selling a video game featuring its advertising icons "had never been done before in the industry," Gies said. "We took a big risk, not only with developing our own video games but also in executing something where customers would be paying us for our content. Now that content is in millions of video games in consumers' homes, so they'll be engaging with our characters for many, many months long after the promotion is over."

More than 3 million copies of the video games were sold, Gies said.

For its latest venture, Burger King has teamed with 20th Century Fox to give "Simpsons" fans an opportunity to be transformed into characters that look like they belong in Springfield with Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, Maggie and crew. Gies said Burger King is using new technology that accesses biometrics to measure intricate facial features, giving consumers an opportunity that previously was reserved only for celebrity guests that appeared on Fox's animated TV series.

As of Thursday afternoon, SimpsonizeMe.com had 31.8 million hits with more than 1 million faces Simpsonized, a Burger King spokeswoman said.

The site will be supported by a TV ad as part of Burger King's overall promotion for "The Simpsons Movie," which will also include talking Simpsons figurines with the purchase of a Kids Meal, in-restaurant displays, custom packaging and two other TV spots.

"The Simpsons Movie" bows July 27.