McWhopper was optimistic, but REI was real

Why only one of these Cannes favorites truly rises to the level of greatness

Two campaigns in the running for top prizes at Cannes this week clearly illustrate the contrast in creative thinking across our industry. Burger King’s McWhopper and REI’s #optoutside campaign were both unconventional concepts, and are receiving attention (and plenty of awards so far) because they were smartly counterintuitive from a business standpoint. But, these campaigns demonstrate how some brands use creativity and marketing to serve their customers authentically, while others spin creativity and marketing to sell product or, worse, distract customers.

In my opinion, a clear winner stands out to me, and that’s REI. More than just a stunt designed to break through the noise of the holiday frenzy, #optoutside embodies what I call "optimistic realism." It’s an approach that strikes a fine balance between meeting an emotional (optimistic) need and a functional (realistic) one. I believe that truly resonant marketing only happens when we’re being faithful to both.

The work that matters most and deserves our admiration does something greater than calling attention to the brand itself; rather, it serves the public. It makes an effort to create positive change in a way that is realistic to the brand’s essence, and, in turn, to the people the brand serves in the long run. The REI campaign really nailed that. It didn’t just shine a light on the insanity that is Black Friday; it did something to change it. It gave people something to consider as they decided whether to line up for the yearly Walmart stampede. It placed life experience above consumerism and profits, which isn’t an easy thing for a business to do. In the end, the brand didn’t change the world — and it didn’t set out to. But it did serve the loyalists, the employees and the co-op shareholders. The company understood its capabilities and its audience, and used the tools at its disposal to go beyond "awareness" to affect real change. And when you’re making decisions based on your reasons for existing as a company, rather than on what you do, the result tends to raise all ships.

The Burger King ad, on the other hand, only got the "optimistic" part of optimistic realism right. It was ambitious in connecting a partnership between two fast-food chains with world peace. It believed its own hype enough to suggest that building a hybrid hamburger could do something to influence real change in the world. The idea behind the U.N.’s Peace Day is definitely well intentioned and serves as a reminder of how high the stakes are for the millions of people living in war zones and refugee camps around the world. And that, my friends, is exactly what makes this campaign ring hollow.

No one looks to a massive burger chain as the paragon of ethics. If Burger King really wanted to do something ethical, they’d improve the sanitation of their establishments, raise minimum wages, offer better advancement options or, I don’t know, stop mass deforestation in the name of palm oil.

With the goal being so unrealistic, McWhopper didn’t come off as a brave or meaningful campaign. It may have garnered a lot of impressions online, but it didn’t do anything more than that. "McWhopper," in fact, actually alienated Burger King’s brand loyalists by uniting to McDonalds. It would be "braver" to be authentic around admitting what we all know — it’s not healthy food, but we eat it because it tastes awesome — or better yet, make a business decision that is in the best interest of the people they serve and not the bottom line. And in an era where healthy and organic reign supreme, there’s nothing braver than that.

Brands and advertisers should have lofty goals, and they should be optimistic in believing they can make a real change in this world. But we have to be realistic. By taking a page from a brand like REI, and doing something tangible, something that is within your capacity, we can push culture and drive change in a real way. I have high hopes that optimistic realism wins at Cannes this year — and I challenge the industry to take note.

Michael Wachs is Chief Creative Officer of GYK Antler.

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