May 23, 2004
CONSUMED

Poultry-Geist

By ROB WALKER

Subservientchicken.com
A few weeks ago the market-research firm Yankelovich Partners released a study that will surprise almost no one. Some 61 percent of the consumers it polled agreed with the assertion that advertising is ''out of control,'' and 60 percent said they feel ''much more'' negative about it than they did a few years ago. ''Consumer resistance to marketing reaches all-time high,'' the report announced. The trade magazine Advertising Age soon published commentary from Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, a nonprofit devoted to curbing commercial culture. ''In the U.S. and across the planet,'' Ruskin wrote, ''there are myriad signs of a growing revolt against the advertising industry.''

And yet, at almost the exact moment that Yankelovich was releasing its findings, the latest e-mail craze zipping around the Web was to pass along a link to a site called subservientchicken.com. Once there, you were greeted with a Webcam-type view of a bland living room and a person in a chicken suit. You could type in commands (''sleep,'' ''moonwalk,'' ''do Pilates'') and this chicken would, subserviently, comply. Subservientchicken.com has received more than 215 million hits, according to its creator -- which happens to be an advertising firm called Crispin Porter & Bogusky, acting on behalf of a client, Burger King. The whole thing, in other words, is an ad, which is why you see the Burger King logo when the site is loading, and it's why there is a link on the site labeled ''BK TenderCrisp,'' which takes you to the fast-food chain's home page. According to Crispin Porter, the average visitor to the subservient chicken site spends seven minutes there.

So, if we're all so sick of advertising, why are millions of us spending our free moments interacting with an ad and then forwarding it to all of our friends?

The answer has to be more than just some latent cultural desire to dominate the chicken-suited. Another recent online ad -- actually, just the online version of a widely broadcast TV spot for Adidas, in which the magic of special effects enables Muhammad Ali's boxer daughter to hurl punches at her father -- has been streamed more than five million times. And American Express has run television ads starring Jerry Seinfeld and Superman that are essentially teasers for longer online ads with the same characters; the first ''Webisode'' has also attracted millions of viewers. In a postmodern move, Seinfeld actually hit the talk-show circuit to promote his new Web commercials. On ''The Daily Show,'' the host, Jon Stewart, skipped the truth-to-power irreverence that has made him a hero to media-savvy young people and politely quizzed Seinfeld about his new project -- a bunch of ads.

Where's the outrage? It turns out that even Gary Ruskin draws a distinction between the ads we hate and the ads we actively seek out. ''This is not coercive,'' he says; it's basically opt-in entertainment, rather than something you can't avoid or that ''clobbers'' you to get attention. ''That strategy is going to work as people get more and more fed up with advertising,'' he adds. Alex Bogusky, a partner in the ad firm that hatched the chicken stunt, says almost the exact same thing: ''It's not all that different from just regular entertainment.''

Perhaps, then, these little films and games don't really count as advertising at all. Bob Garfield, an Ad Age critic, gave low marks to both subservientchicken.com and the Seinfeld series for essentially that reason. It does seem worth asking if even an infinite number of e-mailed links actually sell any more TenderCrisp sandwiches. But Bogusky calls that critique ridiculous. ''If consumers like your brand, they're more likely to go experience your brand,'' he says. ''So it's no different than a charming television commercial -- except that, on average, people spend seven minutes with it.'' He also compares the project to Golden Age television, when ''Texaco Star Theater'' or ''The U.S. Steel Hour'' used a sponsorship model that presented quality entertainment and relatively subtle branding-by-association. Of course Burger King is not financing productions of Paddy Chayefsky or Arthur Miller -- it's financing productions by an advertising firm. But maybe the ad firms are the ones that really know how to create the kind of entertainment that draws a crowd these days. The success of the subservient chicken is, if nothing else, certainly a very powerful advertisement for that very idea.

E-mail: consumed@nytimes.com.


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