A SPECIAL, INANELY ELABORATE SPY EASTER PRANK
By Andy Aaron and Joe Queenan
[SPY Magazine, April 1992]
During the past few months, the public-relations and marketing professions have come under intense criticism. Hill and Knowlton has been pilloried for representing the Church of Scientology and BCCI. The mere fact that he worked as PR man- lobbyist has caused Paul Tsongas political problems. And packaged- goods companies have been accused of improperly targeting certain groups -- young people, blacks -- with harmful products. These brouhahas all derive from three popular presumptions: (1) the PR industry is providing its clients with a false or skewed impression of the real attitudes of the public; (2) these firms will take on anyone as client, as long as the price is right; and (3) modern marketing techniques are so sophisticated that people can be sold anything, whether they want it or not.
Even before these recent controversies arose, we had begun a clandestine investigation of the American PR and marketing industries. To accomplish this, we decided to dream up a doomed company with a terrible name, then invent a couple of bogus deep-pockets Japanese investors who'd be bankrolling the idiotic venture, then contact PR firms of various sizes and whether they'd be interested in representing us, and then take our stupid company with its ridiculous name out into the consumer marketplace.
We needed to come up with a venture that would have the look and feel of a big, well-financed, image-driven, Madison Avenue- created powerhouse yet somehow lack fundamental common sense. The bad idea we settled upon was simple and all-American: a fast food chain called Bunny Burgers Inc., which would be selling ground rabbit, as well as salads and french fried carrots, at dozens of outlets in the eastern United States and Canada. The company could follow the Red Lobster model -- diners would have the opportunity to pick their own bunnies (Tuesday is P.Y.O.B. Night!) for broiling. The whole idea appealed to us because it simultaneously evoked sweetness and made the skin crawl.
We invited nine PR firms to bid on the account and assist us in determining whether the concept was feasible, public-relations- wise, and if so, what measures could be take to mitigate public hostility toward the consumption of bunny meat at a time of burgeoning sensitivity toward the animals with whom we share this fragile planet. At the outset, we feared that PR firms would hang up on us when we phoned to describe our fictitious enterprise and ask for help.
None of the firms hung up on us.
PHASE 1: The Sting
The first step was to make our bogus company look legitimate. We designed and printed suitably impressive stationary and business cards and established a phone line with an answering machine. But the most important artifact was our daunting 24-page business plan and Corporate Overview, which would provide interested PR firms with a quick immersion course in the history of the bunny industry, plus a detailed discussion of Bunny Burgers' marketing and financial objectives.
For this, we spruced up a Vancouver Stock Exchange prospectus issued a few years ago by a real company that was raising venture capital to market a race of super-rabbits. We tore off the front page, which displayed the name of the real company -- Ultima International -- and replaced it with our Corporate Overview, which contained, among other things, references to "Canadian GAAP Regulations." The remainder of the prospectus, which listed typical cuts of antelope meat and included a reference to the Journal of Applied Rabbit Research, was left intact.
When attempting to bait highly respected PR firms that represent important clients such as Chrysler and Haggar Apparel Co., always toss off arcane, serious-sounding references that no one will understand, such as to Canadian GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) regulations.
The prospectus noted that Bunny Burgers was the "first American fast food franchise specializing in burgers made entirely out of rabbit meat" and would target "gastronomically adventurous diners" looking for leaner, more nutritious fast food. We informed the PR firms that in our first phase we would be opening 26 outlets in New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Ohio, as well as 4 in southern Ontario.
When attempting to bait highly respected PR firms, always mention target markets in places such as southern Ontario. PR firms are always impressed by references to burgeoning markets in unglamorous places with which they are unfamiliar.
To reinforce the impression that ours was a vital, legitimate enterprise, we concocted references to the nutritional virtues of rabbit meat in The New York Times, Meat & Poultry and even the spurious Civet & Lapin. We also noted that the company had the financial backing of two Asian investors with experience in Australian and Canadian industry.
The next step was to phone the PR firms to determine their interest in bidding for our account, which might eventually, we lied, be worth several million dollars to them. Although we had great confidence in our business plan, during some conversations with PR agents we blew a Conair Prostyle Mini 500 portable hairdryer into the phone's mouthpiece to support our assertion that the call was being made from a private Gulfstream IV jet over the Hawaiian Island of Lanai. We also invented a Japanese billionaire, Hidehiko Takada, who was helping to bankroll the project. We described our shadowy billionaire as a titan in the booming Osaka construction industry and an amateur gourmet chef.
We were immensely gratified by the response: All nine of the PR firms we contacted expressed an interest in meeting with us as soon as possible. We made it clear that although we had solid financial footing for the venture, we were a bit concerned that members of the dining public might be offended by the notion of paying to have a cute, fuzzy rabbit flayed, hacked to pieces, fired on a gas-fired industrial griddle, then served on a nutritious sesame-seed bun. We knew we couldn't go it alone, we told the PR people. We would need their help.
The competition for the account was heated, so much so that we were obliged to discourage some agencies from going to the expense of developing prototype ad campaigns. We finally settled on three firms we would invite to bid on the account. We arranged to meet all three at New York's Ritz Carlton Hotel in a lavish, $650-a-day suite that seemed big enough to have its own zip code -- corporate credibility was paramount. Here they would sit down with Bob Jansen, president of Bunny Burgers Inc., and billionaire Hidehiko Takada. "Jansen" was in fact one of the authors of the article, whose smarmy demeanor would stand him in good stead in his new guise as corporate frontman; Takada was actually an actor and sushi chef whose specialty is catering for synagogues. To ensure that Mr. Takada would not tip our hand, we gave him two instructions: (1) Speak very little English, and speak it badly; (2) Don't convey any emotion.
Decamped in the corner of a glorious room overlooking Central Park were a pair of cages containing our two live corporate mascots: Big Wig and The General. Big Wig was a long-earred French Lop rabbit; The General was generic looking, with ears of a more traditional, almost conservative length. (The significance of this difference in ear sizes would soon become apparent.)
The first to arrive was a charming woman in her forties from a Manhattan PR firm. (Charming, but, it turned out, a little hysterical; she was the only PR professional we contacted who subsequently insisted on anonymity for the purposes of this article.) Her face wore an expression of low-key cognitive dissonance; she was clearly a bit discomfited by the notion of representing our kind of company. However, as a general philosophical defense of her and her peers, it is important to remember that by the very nature of their profession, they are constantly required to represent clients seeking to market stupid, tasteless and even immoral products. In a free society, everyone has a right to be heard, and it is the sacred trust of the PR professional to make sure everyone is.
"It's new and it's different, and Americans like novel kinds of products," she began enthusiastically. She had come prepared to pitch the account: "I think what you want to do is have an event. We want to bring the top food editors to a luncheon. It's important to get the word 'rabbit' out there," she added. "We want to see a lot more recipes from the food writers on rabbit.....It has to be a really comprehensive campaign where you're doing a lot of education as well." And in her view, the campaign had every chance of enormous success if we could project a classy, upscale image -- unlike, say, Popeye's. "Americans," she said of Bunny Burgers, "love anything that's chic."
Eager to determine whether our product would meet contemporary standards of chicness, we unveiled a dozen eye-catching Styrofoam Bunny Burgers serving boxes, each sporting our logo and contained a sesame seed bun. Also, each contained a chunky pair of pink Styrofoam bunny ears, which sprang up into the diner's face as the container was opened. The PR woman was impressed by the packaging, although her true feelings were betrayed by the manner in which she clutched her briefcase to her chest. A consummate professional, she put to us the important questions that any nutrionally minded consumer might ask: "What are you using in your Bunny Burger?"
"We're not using bunny stretcher or anything like that," Jansen replied crisply. "It's real bunny."
"A hundred percent?"
She listened thoughtfully as Jansen expounded his Corporate Imaging Theory, which differentiated between a "deflective" restaurant chain like McDonald's, which seeks to steer the consumer's thoughts away from the creature being eaten (by using a clown rather than a cow as its mascot), and a "reflective" chain like Bunny Burgers, which celebrates the creature it plans to slaughter and serve on a bun.
"What we want to do is talk about how rabbit is as delicious as chicken, and even more tasteful," our PR expert volunteered. We especially liked her presumptuous use of "we." Then Jansen explained why the company did not make Bunny Burgers out of jackrabbits: "We don't have jackrabbits, because you pay for a rabbit by the pound -- you see the size of the ears on a jackrabbit? You're paying for two and half extra pounds of ear meat."
"Right," she said knowingly.
Throughout this conversation, Takada maintained an enigmatic silence, only occasionally surprising us by making irrelevant references to his experiences as an amateur chef back in Osaka.
Our next interviewee was Alfred Siesel, the likable president of the New York branch of the Anthony M. Franco PR firm. (Franco himself was once president of the Public Relations Society of America but had resigned after he was accused by the SEC of insider trading in the stock of a company he was representing. We selected this firm because we figured it could use the business.)
Seisel demonstrated a surefooted command of the nuances of the rabbit-meat-marketing industry and of trademark law. "It's a fascinating product, and the public relations potential is enormous," he said, but "would it interfere with the trademark of Playboy?" This was one thing we never considered. Nor had we contemplated the potentially disastrous PR black eye that would have resulted from using our ecologically retrograde Styrofoam containers. Seisel didn't mince words: He told us we would have to lose our packaging and replace it with something more biodegradable. He also suggested we preempt media criticism of our new product through the establishment of a rabbit-information clearing house.
We played Seisel a tape of our professionally produced jingle, complete with a chorus of cheerful back-up singers: "Ooh, yummy, yummy, got bunny in my tummy,/ It's a Bunny Burger taste sensation (bunny!),/ Kinda like chicken, kinda like roast beef,/ Pledge allegiance to the Bunny Burger nation,/ They love it in France,/ Come on and give it a chance:/ Bunny Burgers!" (To hear the Bunny Burgers jingle, call 212-633-8522.)
Seisel impressed us by his upbeat observation that "there were three Bunny Burger credits in that tape." Two mentions would have been insufficient; four would have been too many, he concluded.
Throughout all this, Takada maintained an enigmatic silence, then he suddenly let loose a barrage of broken English -- Americans may be squeamish about eating bunnies, he said, "but we change their brains." (Sometime after falling for our Bunny Burger prank, Seisel left Franco.)
Next up was Tony Staffieri, a bouncy, outgoing man who runs Savvy Management in Manhattan. He was much taken with our carrot- fries concept ("Carrot fries! Now there is something wonderful!") but didn't think it was a good idea to keep live rabbits on display in the restaurant. Staffieri immediately addressed the key issue of restaurant staff attire: "How are the people going to be dressed behind the counter? The natural is ears! Obvious. The natural is ears." He listened patiently as Jansen mused that perhaps we should open the flagship restaurant on Easter Sunday. That way, we could directly confront the public's lingering namby-pamby attitude towards the consumption of what were, after all, nothing more than troublesome rodents.
Staffieri sidestepped the issue of the optimal timing for the grand opening but beamed, "They're going to go crazy for this in California! Do you know why? They have a rabbit problem in California." But he suggested that before opening our first-phase stores, we try Bunny Burgers on focus groups.
PHASE 2: The Focus Group
Would the public share the excitement of the PR community for eating creatures heretofore associated with post-Lenten celebrations? We hired market researchers Penn & Schoen to recruit a demographically diverse focus group. In making its choices, the company agreed to apply the same rigorous screening criteria it would normally use for clients like Texaco or Philip Morris.
Penn & Schoen paid eight Americans from various walks of life to convene in a midtown conference room and discuss the pros and cons of eating Bunny Burgers while being secretly watched and recorded from behind a two-way mirror by the authors. At first, the group had no idea what new product they were being asked to review. They knew only that they were being paid $50 to be frank. The trained group leader, Mark Penn, started off slowly, posing general questions about the images conjured up when the word "bunny" was heard. This elicited such predictable comments as "Bugs Bunny" and "Peter Cottontail" but also somewhat more recherche "Thumper."
Penn then posed a series of hypothetical questions about the eating habits of the group: "You're on a desert island, and there are only two things to eat: bunnies and snails. Which would you eat?"
"Snails," they said as one.
"Bunnies or squid?"
"Squid." It was unanimous.
"Suppose now that the bunny meat were ground in a patty? Suppose it were a bunny burger?"
"Bunny burger!" several people exclaimed, as the mood in the room turned ugly. They were appalled.
A cart loaded with what appeared to be authentic Bunny Burgers -- actually ground turkey meat with applesauce garnish -- was wheeled into the room. The burgers were still packed in their ecologically noxious Styrofoam containers, accompanied by heaping portions of carrot fries.
When attempting to dupe people into allowing you to solicit their deepest feelings for $50, always begin by announcing the imminent arrival of heaping portions of refreshment.
After recovering from their initial shock when the spring loaded pink bunny ears leapt up at their startled faces, a few of the focus group members gingerly began nibbling. One -- a large fellow who did not appear to have missed many meals in his lifetime -- wolfed down a burger, but his response was distinctly uncharacteristic of the group. More typical was the reaction of a middle-aged woman who, after a valiant struggle to take the first bite, immediately spat it out, declaring, "You know what it is? It's the thought of what it is -- I can't."
"This could easily be the Edsel of the food industry," sneered another shocked consumer. And a professional man, visibly shaken by the proceedings, refused even to open his box. "You'll have armies of kids trying to burn down the Bunny Burgers place," he said.
PHASE 3: The Mall
But would we have armies of kids trying to burn down Bunny Burgers outlets? And if so, would they be in New Jersey? Determined to answer this question, we rented an empty storefront in the American Way Mall on Route 46 in Fairfield. We installed a garish pink backdrop and large hucksterish signs and hired a pair of gangly postadolescents to pass out free Bunny Burgers, requiring them to don fey, demeaning pink costumes complete with foot-high pop-up rabbit ears (as one of our PR consultants had helpfully suggested).
When attempting to bait the public with a highly dubious enterprise, always have some members of the staff wear demeaning, eye-catching attire. Jaded shoppers are always impressed by employees' willingness to humiliate themselves.
We ordered in scores of ground-turkey burgers. And to make absolutely sure the public took note of us, we hired Rapid T. Rabbit (ne Richard Concepcion of Queens), who tries to make a living by hopping around in a six-foot-tall bunny costume at mall openings.
Our bogus Bunny Burgers district manager, clad in the requisite managerial blazer, then began offering free samples of our product to passersby, whose enthusiasm was somewhat diminished by the presence of several cute, furry, but implicitly doomed rabbits caged in the front of the store. Yet despite their apprehension, the public heeded our clarion call. During the course of the day, we served more than a 100 Bunny Burgers, and it is a measure of the troubled times in which we live that even though most people were manifestly horrified by our product, quite a few of them actually managed to eat it.
Opinions regarding its precise taste varied widely. "It's kind of like eating your dog," said one woman. Others likened the experience to eating chicken, liver, reindeer meat and Nutri-System. Still others described the taste in a more poetic, visceral fashion.
"Nasty," volunteered a man who looked like a recovering Allman Brothers roadie. "Really nasty."
Several mall patrons refused even to countenance the idea of tasting the Bunny Burgers. "You guys are sick!" yelled a girl of 16 as she stormed off -- perhaps, we thought, to recruit an army of her peers to burn down the place. But her reaction was tepid compared with that of one Mike Alino, a local high school teacher. Fuming with the kind of old-fashioned populist rage that seems to have gone out of style, Alino blasted every facet of the Bunny Burgers operation.
"Who dreamed up this name?" demanded Alino. "It's like -- it's like trying to sell Bambi burgers, you know?" He elaborated: "This is like killing the Easter rabbit, or like killing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. You don't do this!"
What did he think we should have called the chain instead?
"Something that didn't have such an emotional association," he replied. "Like, maybe, Rabbit Steaks. Don't call them bunnies! Call them herbivores ... or something."
Pressed for specifics about his emphatic attitude toward Bunny Burgers, Alino barked, "I get turned off right away. Poor little bunnies being ground up...They're cute little things. It's not like cows."
"That's disgusting," agreed a woman standing a few feet away. That's a pet, not something to eat."
"Well, there's going to be a chain of these all across the country," our faux middle manager cheerfully informed her.
She looked startled and clutched her stomach.
Why, indeed. For our investigation of the world of fast-food marketing, we discovered a yawning chasm between the enthusiasm of our PR professionals and the outright, unapologetic disgust of the dining public.
"Even though we got people to take the first bite, they really wouldn't take a second or third," was the solemn verdict of focus-group organizer Mark Penn, who has previously worked for Ted Kennedy's presidential campaign and Ed Koch. "Scientifically, we tried the concept on them, we tried the reality on them, and most people didn't like either. As well as we could package it, as well as we could add sauce to it, they just didn't like it." His conclusion: "Clearly, if someone tried to go forward with Bunny Burgers, they would have picketers, protesters, riot outside the Bunny Burgers stands, and so the product couldn't make it."
Did Ray Kroc cave into the naysayers at the dawn of fast food? Did Dave Thomas abandon the Wendy's dream just because he was latecomer to the business? Colonel Sanders was a pioneer, too. The dream lives. Didn't one of our PR advisors emphasize that the public would love Bunny Burgers in California? We had tested the concept only in the New York-New Jersey region. And we can still hear the thrilling, affirmative words of one venturesome mall shopper, a man of about 30 who looked up beseechingly after biting into his first Bunny Burger. "Uh," he asked, "can I take a couple home?"