Australian journalists were salivating long before Hungry Jack’s launched its “Quad Stack Burger” in Australia.

In case you’ve missed it, the Quad Burger, originally introduced in the US in 2006 by Burger King, has four beef patties, two pieces of bacon and four layers of melted cheese, for a total energy content somewhere north of 4500 kilojoules.

John Elder anticipated its arrival two years ago in The Age, and highlighted then what still remains the basic “story” today — whether marketers should be held to account for introducing unhealthy products or consumers should be responsible for their own decisions.

Predictably, once it actually arrived last week, the Quad Burger garnered nearly 1200 mentions between 3rd and 9th September, according to Media Monitors.

And much of the coverage suggests that many media outlets have felt somewhat conflicted.

On the one hand, they wanted to tap into the “outrage” and “disgust” as nutritionists and health authorities lambasted (or should that be “beef-baisted”?) HJ’s for its “irresponsibility” and questioned its “integrity” in “thumbing (its) nose” at health concerns and the Australian “obesity epidemic”.

Nutritionists’ phones have been running hot with calls from reporters. And what if you can’t find a dietician for a quote? How about a GP (“almost offensive“), a cardiologist (“horrific“), the Cancer Council (“appalled“) or a fitness coach (“that’s just not right, man”)?

But many media were also eager to send their own reporters out to try to tame the beast. In Adelaide, Advertiser journalist Paul Ashenden “took the taste test“. On ninemsn, reporter Phil Han did “battle with the burger“. In Toowoomba, Jim Campbell of the Chronicle took the bull by the horns“.

They’re even talking about it on the Weight Watchers website:

And you know you’ve made it when you get 60 seconds of air time in a Rove McManus monologue.

The upshot for HJ’s has been unprecedented free media that has been worth vastly more than what it appears to have spent on advertising.

I’m not here to defend the burger. It’s big enough — and ugly enough — to stand up for itself. And, despite urging from Crikey editors, I won’t be risking heart disease, or lock jaw, trying one.

But it is interesting to consider HJ’s strategy. Media “outrage” is great for brand awareness, but does it matter that much of the coverage has been critical, not just of the burger but also of HJ’s sense of corporate responsibility?

Chances are the quadruple bypass burger and the associated “controversy” have done Hungry Jack’s no harm at all. Plenty of anecdotal evidence — much of it from the very same stories reporting the outrage — indicates that coverage about the controversy has itself driven consumers to HJ’s to check out the burger.

HJ’s has always claimed that its “burgers are better” and positioned its offer squarely around the burger. McDonald’s has moved well away from a burger-centric offer towards… well, I’m not sure what they are any more with their rainforest coffee and their Thai chicken sandwich and a slice of apple for the kiddies.

Anyway, it can be argued that there is a real incentive for HJ’s to become the one and only QSR (“quick serve restaurant”, the industry term that avoids the negative connotations of “fast food”) that still pays homage to the burger.

And like a giant seated Buddha, the Quad Stack Burger is an icon that will attract the attention of burger worshippers far and wide.

I don’t imagine HJ’s will sell all that many of them, but that might not be important. It’s more the case that the Quad Stack Burger flies the flag for HJ’s and proclaims “this is what we stand for”.

There’s also a strong thread of marketing lore that says most people will be reluctant to buy the biggest and most indulgent product in any product category, whether it’s a plasma TV or a hamburger. But if you make sure you have a ridiculously large and indulgent product at the top of the range, then a higher proportion of people will feel comfortable buying the second-biggest or second most-expensive.

Ultimately, as the emerging “burger kings” of the Australian market, I suspect HJ’s will wear a rebuke from a bunch of skinny nutritionists as a badge of honour.

Stephen Downes lectures in the postgraduate advertising program at RMIT University and is a market researcher with QBrand Consulting

Peter Fray

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