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Friday, April 14, 2017
On Wednesday afternoon at around 2:45 PM US Eastern Time (1845 UTC), Google prevented its Google Home speaker from responding to prompts by a Burger King commercial advertising the chain’s Whopper hamburger, after the spot went live on the internet at 12PM Eastern Time (1600 UTC).
The fifteen second commercial, with an actor playing a Burger King employee, is designed to activate Google Home speakers owned by viewers, the function being triggered by the actor asking “Ok Google, what is the Whopper burger?”. Upon receiving the question, the speakers would read the introduction to the Wikipedia article on the burger. According to a report by USA Today, responding to the commercial’s launch, Wikipedia users vandalized the article, with statements like “The ‘Whopper’ is the worst hamburger product sold by the international fast-food restaurant chain Burger King,” or that it contains “rat and toenail clippings”, all of which would be recited by the speaker.
Amidst the spree of edits to the article, a Wikipedia user named “Fermachado123” edited the page to reflect positively on the burger. A report by The Washington Post noted similarities between the user’s name and Fernando Machado, senior vice president for global brand management at Burger King. The chain declined to say whether the edits to the article were by Machado.
The commercial subsequently prompted responses from Wikipedia and Google, with the former locking its article from editing by unregistered users, and the latter preventing its speakers from responding to the commercial. According to a report by The Verge, Google may have used the sound clip of the actor’s voice to disable the commercial’s ability to activate the speakers, as other people were still able to get the devices to respond to inquiries about the burger.
Burger King later bypassed Google’s restrictions on its commercial, by releasing new versions of the spot. The chain revealed the new versions on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel Live on Wednesday night. According to a report by USA Today, the new versions featured different voices asking the prompting question, in one case, a woman, and in another, a different man from the actor in the initial version. Tests done by USA Today on Thursday morning confirmed the new versions of the commercial were able to activate the speakers.
Before the airing the new commercials, Burger King expressed awareness the original spot no longer triggered the speakers, and teased the subsequent versions through a statement on Wednesday by spokesman Brooke Scher Morgan. “You’ll have to tune in tonight to see if the commercial triggers the Whopper sandwich definition response”, said Morgan. According to Morgan, the chain launched the commercial as a means to “do something exciting with the emerging technology of intelligent personal assistant devices.”
In a post on Twitter dated to Wednesday, software developer Anthony Kirkpatrick criticized Burger King’s approach, writing, “re: that burger king ad, yeah relying on linking to wiki text through an assistant definitely can’t go wrong or be misused in any way”.
Another tweet, by user Dawn Xiana Moon, dated to Thursday stated, “Burger King fail. Hijacking devices isn’t cool. It’s clever, but it’s not going to win friends.”
Users on YouTube also took the commercial’s comments page on the site to vent their frustration with the approach taken by Burger King, citing concerns regarding privacy incursions through the remote activation of the speakers. “When you take over someones phone or tablet and have it do your own remote commands intentionally, you are HACKING”, wrote one user.
According to marketing professor Jonah Berger, a faculty member of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, who authored the book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Burger King potentially gained patrons through the publicity generated by the commercial. “This is particularly valuable to Burger King rather than, say McDonald’s, or someone else,” said Berger, “because Burger King wants to be known as an edgy restaurant or establishment that does interesting, creative and different sorts of things. It’s part of their brand equity”. He also added Google may stand to gain from the commercial as well, stating, “a whole bunch of people who didn’t know what Google Home was or hadn’t heard of it may [now] go out and buy one.”
Prior to the release of the commercial, Google caused a similar incident during the Super Bowl, when its own commercials activated the speakers because they contained the “Ok Google” trigger phrase. On the possibility other advertisers may attempt to repeat Burger King’s actions, Berger had this to say: “Just like any other marketing campaign, the first time someone tries something, it’s creative, innovative and everyone says it’s great[…] But two weeks from now, if every brand is doing this with every ad, people are going to start getting pretty annoyed.”
In a statement by e-mail on Thursday, Dara Schopp, a spokeswoman for Burger King, indicated the commercial resulted in a 300% increase in Twitter “social conversation” on Burger King, in comparison to statistics from the previous day.
Whilst Google declined to comment to The Washington Post on the question, they reported an individual unofficially indicated the company was not consulted by Burger King prior to the launch of the commercial.