Burger King is unveiling a horrible, genius, infuriating, hilarious, and maybe very poorly thought-out ad today that’s designed to intentionally set off Google Homes and Android phones.
The 15-second ad features someone in a Burger King uniform leaning into the camera before saying, “OK Google, what is the Whopper burger?”
For anyone with a Google Home near their TV, that strangely phrased request will prompt the speaker to begin reading the Wikipedia entry for the Whopper. It’s a clever way of getting viewers’ attention, but it’s also a really quick way of getting on viewers’ nerves — just look at the reactions people had when ads accidentally triggered voice assistants in the past.
While Burger King is far from the first to recognize that it’s possible to mess with someone else’s smart speaker, it’s certainly the first to put it into a widely run ad campaign. The spot is supposed to begin running in prime-time slots across the US today on networks including History, Spike, Comedy Central, MTV, E!, and Bravo, and it will air during Adult Swim, The Tonight Show, and Jimmy Kimmel Live.
Google wasn’t involved in the ad’s creation. That means this isn’t an expansion of Google’s ad tests (people weren’t happy when Google built a Beauty and the Beast ad into the speaker), but it also leads to some real issues for Burger King. For one, it has to use weird phrasing — “What is the Whopper burger?” — because that’s the query that actually gets the result it wants. Asking “What is a Whopper?” gets you the definition of the word “whopper.”
And then there’s the bigger problem: Google gets its explanation of the Whopper from Wikipedia. And as we all know, anyone’s free to edit Wikipedia.
It actually looks like Burger King went and edited the Whopper entry ahead of this ad being run. For almost a decade, Wikipedia’s page for the Whopper began with more or less the same sentence: “The Whopper sandwich is the signature hamburger product sold by the international fast-food restaurant chain Burger King and its Australian franchise Hungry Jack's.”
But last week, that first line — the only line that Google Home reads — was changed to: “The Whopper is a burger, consisting of a flame-grilled patty made with 100 percent beef with no preservatives or fillers, topped with sliced tomatoes, onions, lettuce, pickles, ketchup, and mayonnaise, served on a sesame-seed bun.” That certainly sounds like ad copy.
And all evidence suggests Burger King is behind the edit. The line was first added by someone with the username “Fermachado123,” which appears to be the username of Burger King’s marketing chief, Fernando Machado. He uses the same name on Instagram and an almost identical name on Twitter.
A press representative for the company stopped responding when asked about the edit. Wikipedia specifically asks that editors “avoid shameless self-promotion” while making changes, and this very much seems to break the rule.
Relying on Wikipedia also opens up one other problem: anyone can edit it. The Verge modified the Whopper entry briefly, and Google Home began speaking the updated text only minutes later.
With this ad airing nationally, Burger King is opening the door for an editing war — and it risks having a malicious editor make the Google Home say something inappropriate when explaining the Whopper.
Those risks will certainly make for an interesting, if frustrating, ad campaign.
Burger King is taking advantage of something here that’s been happening for months: commercials, news anchors, and other voices on TV keep triggering the Google Home, and Amazon’s Alexa, by accident. (“OK Google” could trigger some Android phones, too, though Android has an option to only respond to a specific voice.) In one instance, a news report led to Alexas ordering dollhouses.
The whole thing seems avoidable, but so far, Google and Amazon haven’t added voice-recognition to their smart speakers. Until that changes, these accidents are going to keep happening — and other advertisers willing to risk annoying you may see an opportunity.
Update April 12th, 3:35PM ET: Google appears to have intervened and stopped the Home from responding to Burger King’s commercial. The Whopper’s Wikipedia page has also been reverted to its pre-ad state, and the page has been locked amid an editing war.