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Activists Reject Having It Burger King’s ‘SquarePants’ Way

Stuart Elliot
The New York Times
April 10, 2009

Burger King has long thrived on polarizing ad campaigns that delight its core audience of younger men and discomfit other consumers. From the “Subservient Chicken” Web site to an invitation to earn a burger by deleting friends on Facebook, the ads have generated headlines and, often, sales.

But eyebrows have gone up a bit higher than usual over a current promotion for a children’s value meal called the 99-cent B.K. Kids Meal, which features SpongeBob SquarePants of Nickelodeon cable TV fame. Because the offer requires the purchase of an adult value meal at the same time, Burger King is advertising the Kids Meal to adults ­ in a campaign with an adult approach.

The campaign includes a television commercial featuring the irreverent King character, who appears in many adult-themed Burger King ads, and a version of the song “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-A-Lot. There are dancing women sporting square-shaped rear ends in tribute to SpongeBob; the rear ends are wiggled and wriggled during the spot.

The song has lyrics that include the phrases “square butts” and “booty is booty.” There is also a longer version of the commercial, which can be watched on YouTube.

An organization called the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has castigated the campaign, calling it “highly sexualized.”

“It’s bad enough when companies use a beloved media character like SpongeBob to promote junk food to children,” Susan Linn, director of the organization, said in a statement, “but it’s utterly reprehensible when the character simultaneously promotes objectified, sexualized images of women.”

Ms. Linn, who is also a psychologist at the Judge Baker Children’s Center in Boston, said her organization had received more than 2,600 complaints from members about the commercial. She is calling on Burger King and Nickelodeon to withdraw the campaign.

Both, however, are hanging tough, at least for now. In a statement to reporters distributed through Edelman, a public relations agency, the Burger King Corporation said it wanted to “clear up any confusion about the intentions” of the campaign.

The statement describes the campaign as aimed solely at adults and goes on to say that “as with all Burger King adult advertising campaigns,” the commercial “airs only during adult shows targeting adult audiences” and is “meant to appeal to the adults who take their families to Burger King restaurants for good food and entertainment.”

There is a “separate and dedicated SpongeBob advertising campaign for kids,” the Burger King statement concludes, “which is running simultaneously on kid-targeted programming.”

Ms. Linn was not mollified by the statement, dismissing the description of the campaign’s adult intent by saying that Burger King was “disingenuously claiming” the campaign was intended for adults.

In a letter to Nickelodeon, Ms. Linn’s organization asked whether the cable channel had approved the campaign. A Nickelodeon spokesman provided a statement in reply.

“The Burger King ad is intended to be an adult-targeted and humorous take on the SpongeBob character’s iconic ‘square’ pants set to a famous pop song from the ’90s,” said the statement from Nickelodeon, which is owned by Viacom.

The “SpongeBob SquarePants” series on the channel has “a monthly adult viewership of 45 million people above the age of 18,” the statement concludes, and “the intention was to offer a funny and playful take on the character for that audience.”

 

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