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That's disgusting!

Last year I wrote about the Clif Bar ad that talked about how the disgust response is powerful in advertising but doesn’t work well for food.

Well, the folks on the Burger King account must not have read my post or at least they didn’t believe it. Or perhaps they didn’t have enough organizational savvy to overcome a powerful voice in favor of the campaign that shows a moldy whopper.  But beyond my opinion and any research they probably did, there is academic research that proves the folly of evoking the disgust reflex for food advertising.

Terrance Shrimp and Eleanora Stuart summarized the data on how disgust works in their 2004 paper in the Journal of Advertising: “The Role of Disgust as an Emotional Mediator of Advertising Effects .  They conclude that disgust is powerful in convincing people to avoid something – like meth in the Montana Meth Project ads – but not powerful in convincing people to eat something.  One attempt to demonstrate that food at a restaurant was pure backfired when the ad showed the raw meat, which disgusted people.  This BK ad is even worse than that.

So, I predict, the Burger King ad that celebrates the removal of preservatives by showing the sandwich becoming moldy over time is going to backfire.

What makes this boomerang even more likely is that the people who tend to eat at fast food chains tend to be Conservative and Conservatives have higher than average nausea and disgust reactions.  But people who work in advertising don’t understand that because they tend to be Liberal with lower than average disgust reactions.  That’s another part of the explanation of how this ad ever got approved.  The ad execs who approved the ad (and who probably wouldn’t choose to eat in a BK restaurant if they didn’t work on the account) don’t really understand their target audience and what is important to them.

There’s been a lot of stuff written on disgust response – if you work in strategy on a food account, I suggest you peruse the academic literature on the topic.  It may help you convince someone not to come up with the next moldy sandwich ad.  This also applies to other categories too:  anything with sex, or bodily functions.  If you want a summary of the research about disgust, send me an email

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Karen Tibbals @KarenTibbals

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