History of advertising: No 166: Subservient Chicken

A more bizarre early warning to advertisers not to underestimate the web's power would be hard to imagine than an eager-to-please chicken that appeared to obey any online order given to him.

The Subservient Chicken’s transformation into an early viral sensation was not only remarkable at a time when Twitter had yet to be born and Facebook was still confined to college students. It also revolutionised the way advertisers thought about engaging fans online.

What was equally amazing was the way it galvanised the fortunes of Burger King.

Having changed owners and rebranded so many times, and with a reputation for poor food quality, Burger King assigned its $350 million account to Crispin Porter & Bogusky in 2004 with a brief to reshape its image.

And the agency, with a reputation for controversial and edgy work, didn’t disappoint.

Working with the production house Barbarian, CP&B positioned the brand at the twenty-something market and revived its 1974 "Have it your way" line for Subservient Chicken. This was actually somebody dressed in a chicken costume who appeared to act out any request that was typed into the command bar.

In fact, more than 400 commands had been filmed beforehand to correspond with possible demands. 

Nevertheless, the website had the feel of a webcam and people couldn’t resist telling their friends about the character – or typing in something lewd to see what he would do. 

Within a year, the microsite had drawn almost 400 million hits with visitors spending an average of six or seven minutes with the brand. As a result, Burger King’s sales improved so much in 2004 that the company’s growth surpassed McDonald’s.

Things you need to know

  • In 2005, Burger King extended the Subservient Chicken theme with an imitation metal band called Coq Roq. However, pictures on the band’s website with captions such as "Groupies love the Coq" had to be taken down after protests.
  • Subservient Chicken made a comeback in April 2014 to mark its tenth anniversary.
  • Having seen its market hit by focusing on young consumers, Burger King is now concentrating on promoting itself to a broader audience.