Burger Clan and the weird history of awkward video game promos

Apparently, gamers love fast food, pizza rolls and anthropomorphic razors.

Burger King

Executives at Burger King are convinced playing video games makes people really, really hungry. Like, debilitatingly hungry. So hungry, in fact, that they can't take a few minutes to grab a snack, order a pizza or even look away from the screen.

Thankfully for starved players in Madrid, Spain, Burger King and Sony have rolled out a solution to this dining dilemma: Burger Clan.

Burger Clan allows PlayStation Network members in Spain to jump into a game with an eSports professional -- folks like FIFA champion Alfonso Ramos Cuevas or Call of Duty player Roberto Abreu -- and between rounds of owning n00bs, they can order Burger King for home delivery directly from these pros. Think of it as a drive-thru system for the living room. Spain has one of the largest home-delivery ecosystems in the world and it represents Burger King's third-biggest market, behind the United States and Germany. If Burger Clan is going to work anywhere, it's in Madrid.

That's a big if, according to eSports attorney and Catalyst Sports & Media EVP Bryce Blum.

"The campaign feels like many of the other marquee brands that have tried to enter the gaming space -- it's forced and doesn't engage with the audience in an authentic manner," Blum says. "I feel like Burger King simply saw the opportunity and went for it without trying to understand its audience and what drives their behavior."

To Blum, it seems like Burger King concocted this promotion based on outdated, out-of-touch stereotypes about video game fans: They're lazy, obsessive and addicted to fast food. Burger King Spain marketing director Bianca Shen Leme responded to this potential authenticity problem in April, in an interview with Adweek.

"There's a need, and the need is, 'I don't want to stop playing,'" Leme says. "That's why I think it's authentic; people recognize it's made for them, adapted to their lifestyle. They want to play as much as they can."

This stance doesn't exactly assuage Blum's fears.

To be fair, Burger Clan isn't alone in the world of silly, slightly exploitative cross-market video game advertising programs. Taco Bell is probably the most prolific video game partner in the fast food world, regularly giving away special PlayStation 4s, Vitas, free games, Overwatch swag and even a PlayStation VR bundle.

Though Taco Bell might win in terms of volume, its promotions are downright tame compared with other blatantly awkward attempts to tap into the gaming audience. Here are just a few memorable campaigns:

  • 1990: Capcom and Domino's create the game Yo! Noid by replacing the protagonist of a Japanese NES platformer with the pizza chain's mascot.

  • 2005: Everquest 2 implements an in-game Pizza Hut ordering system.

  • 2008: Microsoft and Doritos convince an independent developer to make the game Doritos Dash of Destruction for the Xbox 360.

  • 2012: Doritos, Mountain Dew and Halo 4 join forces in a branded interview that spawns the Doritosgate controversy.

  • 2013: Axe body spray teams up with DICE to create a disturbingly unromantic ad featuring Battlefield 4.

  • 2015: Professional League of Legends player Hai Lam inexplicably ends up in a bed with five young women in an ad for HTC.

  • 2016: Ugh, Hydrobot. We'll let Blum handle this one: "It's the perfect encapsulation of trying to reach the gaming audience through antiquated and offensive stereotypes."

  • 2016: Twitch debuts the Totino's Bucking Couch, where prominent streamers sit on a mechanical-bull-style loveseat as crewmembers throw pizza rolls at their faces.

  • 2017: After 10 years of development, Final Fantasy XV finally debuts, complete with a bunch of obvious in-game ads for Cup Noodle.

And, now, there's Burger Clan. Clearly, partnerships in the video game world are nothing new -- especially for fast food companies -- but Burger Clan is slightly different. It's attempting to cash in on the eSports market, one of the gaming industry's fastest-growing segments.

Blum commends Burger King for focusing on eSports and meeting players where they are. According to Blum, 55 percent of eSports fans are between the ages of 21 and 35, with an average household income of $76,000 -- they're young, they have cash to burn and there's only going to be more of them. This is advertising's sweet spot. Professional-gaming fans are arguably more attractive to advertisers than the general, ageing video game audience. In 2017, the average gaming fan is 35 years old.

"In a world where younger generations no longer consume traditional media and have off-the-charts ad-block rates, eSports and gaming present a unique opportunity to reach this valuable demographic in a compelling manner," Blum says.

Burger Clan is silly, but it's also innovative. The entire thing could, in fact, work out magnificently. Perhaps Burger King and Sony are laying the foundation for the future of fast food. Perhaps they'll simply sell a few extra Whoppers in Madrid this month.

Regardless, the video game industry doesn't need help coming up with unfortunate advertising campaigns. Recent history is filled with examples of ill-conceived marketing schemes: The makers of Hitman briefly allowed anyone to pretend to kill their friends for having "small tits;" an Australian media outlet called the bomb squad after Ubisoft sent a ticking safe to its offices in a Watch Dogs 2 stunt; Capcom opened a butcher shop purporting to sell human meat for Resident Evil 6; Ubisoft hired an actor to burst into a New Zealand bar waving a plastic gun, scaring patrons and prompting the police to appear, all to sell Splinter Cell: Conviction. The list goes on.

Corporate promotions are a special brand of ridiculous, though -- they're generally an attempt by an outside company to appeal to as many video game fans as possible, which makes them feel out of touch or exploitative to the very audience they're trying to reach.

Some brands get it right. Arby's, for example, recently showed other fast food companies how to rule social media through the use of clever pop culture references. The company's Twitter account is filled with adorable animations of popular video game characters, all crafted out of burger boxes. It's subtle, it's thoughtful and it's working.

"At the CS:GO Major in Atlanta this past January, there were actually 'Let's go Arby's' chants during some of the timeouts because the eSports community feels like Arby's embraced gaming in an authentic and fun way," Blum says.

As the eSports market explodes, outside companies will continue to create slightly insulting and tacky ad campaigns aimed at its fans. Sometimes, these ads will work. And sometimes, they'll flop. Spectacularly.

"ESports and gaming activations are incredibly high-risk, high-reward," Blum says. "If you're successful, you can get millions of free social engagements with a single ad. ... On the flip side, if you run a bad campaign you can get burned incredibly quickly."