The dark secrets of Whopper Sacrifice

One of the brains behind the wildly successful Burger King Facebook ad campaign talks about how the key to its wildfire spread was a combination of simplicity and cultural pervasiveness.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
3 min read

SAN FRANCISCO--"I don't know how many of you actually got sacrificed out there, but condolences to you," said Matt Walsh, head of the Interaction Design department at ad agency Crispin Porter & Bogusky, as he surveyed the audience at his Friday morning talk at the Web 2.0 Expo.

Burger King

CP&B, after all, was the creator of the "Whopper Sacrifice" phenomenon, a Burger King ad campaign on Facebook that promised a coupon for a free hamburger if participants deleted 10 people from their friends lists on the social network. It was a wild success: the Facebook application was installed nearly 60,000 times in a matter of days, nearly 20,000 Whopper coupons were sent out, and well over 200,000 Facebook friends were deleted. Facebook members even created unofficial groups, offering to let other members add them as friends and then delete them for Whopper Sacrifice purposes.

But Facebook disabled the campaign after ten days, claiming that it was a violation of user privacy because Whopper Sacrifice notified friends if they had been deleted. "(It) challenged the very concept of Facebook," Walsh said. "Whopper Sacrifice had been sacrificed." In an ironic twist, that just led to even more buzz for the campaign.

Walsh took the stage at the Web 2.0 Expo to talk about what he saw as the secret sauce (ha, ha!) behind Whopper Sacrifice's success: what he calls "deceptive simplicity."

"It's a very, very simple idea," Walsh said. "And it's something that to a user is a very easy message to communicate. Sacrifice ten of your friends, get a free Whopper. It's got kind of the ultimate elevator pitch."

But the decision-making process behind the campaign was more theoretical, almost anthropological. Walsh said that another core element of Whopper Sacrifice's popularity was the fact that it tapped into a real "tension" in digital culture--how social networking has changed our ideas of what friendship means.

"For so long, friendship in the social space has kind of been a form of social currency," Walsh explained. Social networks' "entire system is kind of dependent on you aggregating as many of your friends as possible in the network, ballooning as quickly as possible, but at the end of the day that's all fine and good in the ramp-up when everything is novel...quite a few years into the social-networking arena now, there's really a question of what is friendship in the 2.0 world?"

Combining that provocativeness with a simple, no-brainer campaign is what Walsh said made it work.

"You're going to be faced with a lot of questions, and you're going to be faced with a lot of what-ifs, and you're going to be faced with a lot of bells and whistles added on," he suggested to marketers in the audience. "Whopper Sacrifice was one that went viral with pretty much zero media budget. We had a few small media banners on Facebook itself, but outside of that...we had a press release and that was it. It blew up because it was something that really resonated with people."

He also acknowledged that not all the feedback was glowing.

"Some people thought it was a little brutal because we did send notifications," Walsh admitted. "If I defriended you, you would get a message saying that you were worth less than one-tenth of a Whopper."