If you object to the ads for fast-food chain Carl's Jr. – one features a seemingly topless model posing behind strategically placed melons, while others include less scantily clad women bending over for the camera or giving come-hither grins while riding a mechanical bull – then just blame Carl Jr.
The fictional man-child CEO is blamed for the brand's sexist antics in a lighthearted new commercial for the chain, which is late to the trend of abandoning prurient advertising to take a new, more mature route. "Food, not boobs," the character says.
The ad shows Carl Hardee Sr. returning to the offices of the company he turned over to his son, who "got a little distracted." The patriarch explains that he's back to emphasize the restaurant's history of quality. The duo will continue to star in future ads. With Junior no longer in charge, the message is that the chain is growing up.
But that does not mean it's apologetic.
"I don't think they have anything to apologize for," said Jason Norcross, executive creative director and partner at 72andSunny, the Los Angeles-based ad agency that has worked with Carl's Jr. and Hardee's owner CKE Restaurants Inc. for eight years. "But I think people were like, 'It's too easy.' And over time it got stale and expected and familiar. And I'm sure there was a strain of people put off by what they saw as the objectification of women. You could probably debate that. But people had that opinion."
It's a strikingly different tone from that of other marketers who have abandoned ads that, debatable or not, objectified women. 72andSunny also worked on a campaign last year for Unilever PLC-owned brand Axe, which dropped its babes-and-body-spray ads to celebrate a more diverse notion of masculinity. GoDaddy, known for lecherous, lowest-common-denominator advertising for years, found the tone was actually hurting sales for its Web services, particularly among female small business owners. Recently, Brazilian beer brand Skol ran an earnest ad that showed female artists to revamp its old posters of women in little clothing. "The world has evolved, and so has Skol. This doesn't represent us any more," it said.
That kind of approach didn't make sense for Carl's Jr. "At the end of the day, we're selling hamburgers. We're not trying to make some big cultural statement. It should be fun," Mr. Norcross said. "It's not an earnest brand. It would have felt wrong to do something earnest."
Whether brands are truly evolving is an open question, but marketers seem to be recognizing that sex doesn't necessarily sell. A 2015 analysis of 53 experiments featuring 8,489 participants found that "as intensity of sexual ad content increased, memory, attitudes and buying intentions decreased." The researchers at Ohio State University also noted that "violence and sex never helped and often hurt ad effectiveness."
Here in Canada, some consumers report that they don't want to buy from brands that take this approach. The second-highest cause of complaints to Advertising Standards Canada are "unacceptable depictions and portrayals," which include ads demeaning to women, as well as other derogatory content. In a 2015 survey conducted by ASC, 80 per cent of people said sexist depictions of women are unacceptable and 67 per cent said they would be much less or somewhat less likely to buy a product after seeing a sexist ad.
The sensitivity to such depictions varies somewhat by gender. The same survey found that just 14 per cent of women found partial female nudity "completely acceptable" in ads, compared with 40 per cent of men. And while a minority found "sexist depictions of women" acceptable, the reaction against them was stronger among women than men.
For years, Carl's Jr. has depended on that gap, identifying its target market as "young, hungry guys," who it believed were just fine with its provocative ads.
"Women were definitely turned off by Carl's Jr. advertising, guys to a lesser extent," Mr. Norcross said.
What drove this shift in marketing strategy was increased competition: The chain is fighting for share not just against big brands such as McDonald's and Burger King but also smaller players such as Shake Shack that are perceived as higher-quality indulgences. Carl's Jr. was not perceived as similarly quality-obsessed.
"People were distracted. They remember the girls, but didn't pay attention to anything else they were saying," Mr. Norcross said.
The new Carl's Jr. ad, in addition to making fun of its own approach, talks about the restaurant's history and the food quality. That will be the approach going forward, complemented by new store designs, new uniforms and a reboot of the packaging and logo, which the agency also designed.
That fits with the company's focus here in Canada, where Carl's Jr. first entered the market in 2011 and now has 21 locations across the country. Market research has shown that its hungry guys aren't as young as the company thought: Its customers tend to be in their mid-30s here and almost half of them are women, despite the tone the advertising has taken in the past. Carl's Jr. runs TV ads, often adaptations of the U.S. campaigns, in Alberta and Saskatchewan; everywhere else, it relies heavily on digital and social media advertising, but people still occasionally see the ads on U.S. channels or online.
"You can't always have the same voice. You have to update the brand over time," said Jeff Branton, vice-president of Carl's Jr. Canada. "Even something as aggressive as that campaign, it gets stale."