Internet Nostalgia

Let’s Revisit the Subservient Chicken

Burger King’s surreal ad campaign circa 2004 transformed how we thought about viral online marketing

In part two of our new series on the internet’s olden times, we return to the dawn of viral online marketing. This is the next installment of our weekly Internet Nostalgia series, which looks back at stories that captured the imagination and attention of the internet for a fleeting moment and then vanished as everyone moved on to something else. The world of the internet moves so quickly that things that happened five years ago might as well be black-and-white newsreel footage at this point. This series looks back at those phenomena and what they told us about the internet, and ourselves. If you have a suggested topic, email me at williamfleitch@yahoo.com. Last week, we looked at Justine Sacco’s flight to Africa. Today: The Subservient Chicken.

Date: April 2004

The story: You can call me a rube all you want — you’ll be right! — but when The Subservient Chicken showed up in 2004, I didn’t know it was a marketing campaign. I just thought it was a weird, almost creepy website in which you could type things into a box and get a man in a very stupid-looking chicken costume do the things you typed into the box. To be fair, it was reasonable for me to think this, since this was exactly what The Subservient Chicken did. He did what you told him to. That’s why he was Subservient, after all.

There was something unnerving, even snuff-film-y, about the Subservient Chicken. (Why in the world was he wearing stockings?) But that only added to the intrigue. What was this thing?

The video above was made after the jig was up: Hence the “BK Tendercrisp.” It turned out The Subservient Chicken was just a marketing campaign, a pretty wild one, for Burger King. It was the brainchild of marketing firm Crispin Porter + Bogusky, which is to say, the whole thing was a work. And it was a highly successful work: The site received 8 million views a day, with visitors staying an average of 10 minutes, truly massive numbers in 2004. And then it launched a television campaign that ultimately featured Darius Rucker from Hootie and the Blowfish, along with the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. All for some dumb fast food sandwich.

Pop Culture Crossover: Oh, you can imagine the fun cable news had with The Subservient Chicken.

Where the hell did they get this idea?

The campaign was overtly based on late-night television, specifically surreal stoner spectacles like Adult Swim:

“The spots are typically very late cable programming aimed toward the 20- and 30-year-old young adults,” [a Burger King spokesperson] noted. Asked how long the campaign will run and when the Subservient Chicken site will go down, Lewis said, “It goes down when it goes down. It’s all about being counterculture, hip, and with a little bit of attitude. What has made this campaign work is a certain degree of mystery.”

This campaign eventually led to the “King” character for the brand, who was originally meant to be creepy like the chicken but is now essentially accepted as the mascot in the same way Ronald McDonald is for McDonald’s.

And it made Crispin Porter + Bogusky the hottest ad firm in the country. Eventually they would make the “I’m a Mac” ads for Apple, with John Hodgman as the staid PC and Justin Long as the young, hip Mac. They were hot because they had cracked the code every major firm was trying to crack at the time: They were able to promote and sell stodgy old brands via the internet. They made Burger King seem cool, however briefly.

What We’ve Learned: Take it from someone who started a website in 2003: Everybody in the early aughts thought the internet was the future, but no one had any idea what that meant. One thing we liked about it, though: It wasn’t going to be as crass and commercial as other mediums. The internet was free, after all: Websites, music, movies, whatever you wanted: all free! How would you even know how to make money on the internet? For anti-capitalists and slackers everywhere, it was nirvana. It was pure creation for creation’s sake. There was a gonzo sense of excitement, that you could just click around for hours and stumble across something inexplicable and wonderful.

You knew, though, eventually they’d figure out how to monetize it. And that’s what The Subservient Chicken was. It was legitimately weird and funny and bizarre, and it was a glorious time-suck in the way all the great things of the internet were at the time.

And it turned out to be for freaking Burger King. It felt like the first unlocking of the internet’s potential for marketing, but it also felt like the first unlocking of the internet’s potential to be totally lame. Next thing you knew, that sort of weird Adult Swim-knockoff advertising was everywhere; eventually they’d just go ahead and hire the Adult Swim crew itself to make ads. Thus, Tim and Eric doing Old Spice commercials:

And now the idea of making something weird like that, just to make it, not only seems absurd, it seems like a total waste of time. After all: If you can’t sell it, what’s the point? There was a time where something like The Subservient Chicken would just show up out of nowhere, and it felt like you’d discovered something that had previously been hidden in the internet’s dark undercarriage. But now there is no internet hipster underground. It’s all just more space available for rent. Even for a chicken wearing stockings.

Got a suggestion for Internet Nostalgia? Send it to me at williamfleitch@yahoo.com.

Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of four books, with fifth, “How Lucky,” coming May 2021. https://williamfleitch.substack.com

Thanks to Brendan Vaughan

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