Belmont blunder: Burger King’s PR stunt whips up memories of horsemeat scandal

The company paid $200,000 for its mascot to stand next to American Pharoah's trainer during the final Triple Crown race.
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Why would a chain that touts its "100 percent beef" burgers want to run with a horse?

Why would a chain that touts its “100 percent beef” burgers want to run with a horse?

“Burger King drops supplier linked to horsemeat”
USA Today, Jan. 24, 2013

“Burger King Paid $200,000 to Have Mascot Stand Next to American Pharoah Trainer Bob Baffert at Belmont Stakes”
Newsweek, June 10, 2015

In case you missed the news, that second headline refers to the 12th winner of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown. American Pharoah won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and, finally, the Belmont Stakes.

Those are horse races. American Pharoah is a horse. A horse is a horse, of course, of course.

And while Burger King bet on the winning horse with its public relations gambit, it did so at the considerable risk of reviving a scandal that rocked the company only two years ago.

It was an idea that never should have gotten out of the starting gate.

‘New paradigm of sports marketing’

I’m sure Burger King would beg to differ with me, particularly given the positive buzz it generated. The company’s take, according to Ad Age:

“The interesting thing with the King is how BK demonstrates a new paradigm of sports marketing — and how the brand integrates into pop-culture moments that transcend sports. It’s not just about attaching a logo to an event — it’s about creating a moment that gets talked about organically.”

A FoxBusiness story quoted Chad J. Kawalec, who was identified as founder of the Brand Identity Center and someone who worked on Burger King’s advertising “a few years ago.”

“A brand like BK must remain top of mind and relevant. Natively inserting itself in unexpected, large scale events helps reinforce BK as a brand that is in the thick of the action. Contemporary and ready to go. The value stems not only from the activity itself (those who see it natively), but also from the description of the activity in the press. The value of exposure like this is 100 fold versus cost. Very smart in my opinion. Sales will be the ultimate measure.”

‘Neigh’ or ‘Nay’?

All of those things sound great, but note that only in 2013 Burger King took out newspaper ads in Europe to apologize for being linked to a horsemeat scandal there. Knowing that and the fact that Burger King goes to great lengths to promote its “100 percent beef burgers,” why would the company whisper sweet nothings to a horse?

Surely this raised some red flags within Burger King’s hierarchy, and yet the “neigh” votes outnumbered the “nays”?

Did the company gamble that Americans either had not heard of the scandal, had forgotten it, or simply didn’t care because it occurred in Europe? To be sure, the scandal did not involve U.S. stores, but it was widely reported domestically.

It prompted Jason Alexander, who played George Costanza on “Seinfeld,” to tweet this quip in 2013:

I was with a group of people when I watched the Belmont Stakes race. I had no real interest in the outcome other than a $2 bet, but seeing the Burger King mascot immediately brought “horsemeat” to my mind. It elicited a similar response from Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke:

It’s a play I would have counseled Burger King not to make, but Burger King must have a lucky horseshoe. How else to explain why Maureen Morrison, the Ad Age reporter who wrote about the American Pharoah tie-in, didn’t connect the dots to her 2013 story about Burger King and horsemeat?

Still, Morrison did not completely let the chain off the hook. She noted that Burger King paid $1 million to sponsor Floyd Mayweather in his May fight against Manny Pacquiao.

“The American Pharoah promotion, in any case, drums up less controversy than the Mayweather promotion did,” she wrote, “since Mr. Mayweather had previously been convicted of domestic abuse.”

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