Fake news and true stories

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As if we needed more disinformation in the age of fake news, along comes CKE Restaurants’ controversial new advertising campaign for its dual fast-food brands, Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s.

The spots, in case you’ve been treading quicksand for the last six weeks, show fictional founder Carl Hardee yanking the operations back from son Carl Hardee Jr., because the lad is hell-bent on showcasing curvaceous women in bikinis instead of burgers. The elder Hardee replaces the cheesecake images covering the walls with beauty shots of food, all the while declaring the brands are going back to their roots as quick-service pioneers.

As Junior says, now the chains are going to be all about food, not boobs.

There are so many implications to the new ad that a full exploration would outstrip a Ken Burns documentary. First, there’s the promised about-face. Carl’s Jr. famously spotlighted sex kittens like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian in its commercials, drawing sharp criticism for the sexism. Then-CEO Andy Puzder unabashedly defended the strategy, explaining that hot girls were more of a beacon than ugly girls, especially for the hungry young guys Carl’s was targeting.

Point two: The ads are the first commercials of the post-Puzder age. The Donald Trump champion resigned as chief after his nomination as the U.S. secretary of labor poofed under controversy. Was he the Hugh Hefner behind the spots all along?

Because of the Puzder connection (or lack thereof), the commercials are drawing attention beyond late-night talk shows and social media. Political pundits are dissecting what the spots reveal about Puzder and the Trump politics he espouses.

Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” opined that the spots are a metaphor for the country’s political situation: A grown-up needs to step in and seize direction from the childlike Trump. Scarborough suggested it’s no coincidence the ads are being run by the CKE leadership that succeeded Puzder, who was an adviser to Trump during his campaign.

And then there are the industry geeks like me, who have completely different takeaways from the spots.

For one thing, CKE has succeeded in doing something the industry hasn’t seen for a while: creating an ad campaign that’s generating buzz, or what we curmudgeons once called water cooler chatter.

And we have to tip our press fedora to the move away from a Porky’s-meets-American Pie ad approach—the marketing equivalent of making flatulence sounds with your armpits. It helps the industry’s image to drop that strategy.

But there’s also some regret that CKE is glossing over its real roots to have some fun. Next to actual restaurant visits, commercials are the main way the industry communicates with the public and shapes impressions. While CKE distanced its brands from adolescent yuk-yuks, it squandered an opportunity to tell the story of how they were built by true entrepreneurs.

Carl’s Jr. was the brainchild of Carl Karcher, who hocked his car for $311 to buy a hot dog cart and parlayed it into a multibillion-dollar quick-service empire. The “Jr.” referred to the size of the prototype that really caught on for the brand, and has nothing to do with fathers and sons.

Karcher had his challenges as a businessman, but only Horatio Alger’s fictional life was a better testimonial to the opportunities afforded by the restaurant business.

Hardee’s real founder was Wilbur Hardee, not only an exemplary entrepreneur but also a prime example of how an extreme nonconformist can find a place in the industry. At one point, Hardee became infatuated with Chinese food and recast Hardee’s buildings as pagoda lookalikes.

Insiders say he was almost a recluse during the last decades of his life. Clearly he lived his own way.

CKE’s ads are memorable and a positive step. But it’s a shame the same points couldn’t have been made with a commemoration of the brands’ true founders, who really were pioneers of the burger business. 

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