Essay

Mama Warned Us About Fast Food And Fast Women

Paris Hilton's bump-and-grind commercial for Carl's Jr. burger chain.
Paris Hilton's bump-and-grind commercial for Carl's Jr. burger chain. (Wenn)
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 29, 2005

Let's get the obvious stuff out of the way first: Paris Hilton's TV commercial for the Carl's Jr. fast-food chain, now being downloaded at a computer near you, is a shoddy, shameless, plainly outrageous publicity stunt that all decent, right-thinking people will condemn.

Yes, it's that good.

Paris's 30-second bump-and-grind with a Bentley, a garden hose and a hamburger is a landmark piece of bad taste. It's also an ingenious bit of hucksterism, a marketing coup fueled by a vision that is pure and simple, and altogether rare, in an age of corporate committee-think.

Many companies peddle sex while trying to peddle something else. But it's not every day that a company peddling sex creates a server-crashing commercial that engenders buzz far beyond a few paid airings. Everything had to come together for such a button-pushing masterpiece to succeed.

And it did. Just take this simple test: Had you ever heard of Carl's Jr. before Paris Hilton started washing cars for the chain? Unless you've lived out West -- Carl's is a California-based chain that has no franchises east of Oklahoma and doesn't advertise nationally -- chances are you hadn't.

You have now. That's because the ad has achieved what few ads ever do: a life beyond the next commercial break. Carl's is spending just $4 million to $5 million to buy air time over the next two months in a handful of Western cities, but the freebie exposure has been many times that. The Hilton commercial has gotten attention from countless newspapers and local newscasts, from all the cable news networks, "Today," "Entertainment Tonight" and even ESPN. The pretext is the "controversy" -- the Parents Television Council helpfully played along by calling it "basically soft-core porn" -- but that's just an excuse for airing footage of Ms. Hilton sudsing up (and you didn't think we'd print a jaded commentary about filth and degradation without including saucy pictures of it, did you?).

What Carl's (and its ad agency, Mendelsohn-Zein of Los Angeles) did was strip its selling proposition to its chassis. Since young men between the ages of 18 and 34 are Carl's core customers, it wasn't hard to figure out what grabs their attention.

But filling your ad with scantily clad babes and expensive cars alone doesn't get you denounced by moralists and discussed on CNN. In fact, Carl's has tried generic exploitation in the past, to limited effect. Its most recent commercial showed a young woman gyrating on a mechanical bull while eating a burger; in another, young men take bets on whether an attractive woman will splatter some of the contents of her juicy burger on her blouse. Its slogan: "If it doesn't get all over the place, it doesn't belong in your face."

Edgy, maybe, but not hormonal enough. This time around, Carl's did two very clever things.

The first was to keep the concept simple and uncluttered. "We absolutely meant to be racy," says Brad Haley, Carl's executive vice president of marketing. Indeed, there's no story line and very little sales pitch. The ad features nothing but the almost-naked babe, a shiny car and a lot of suds. Except for a brief shot of Hilton biting into a burger, the commercial could just as easily be selling Bentleys, garden supplies or Turtle Wax.

The glossy, generic quality was part of the plan, too. "It was designed to be like a music video," Haley says. "This was written for young men who are doing a dozen things -- playing video games, listening to their iPods, looking at the Internet, watching MTV. These days, watching TV is the least of all those activities."

What made the ad something more than merely titillating was its second masterstroke: casting Paris Hilton. For Paris isn't just any blond bimbo writhing on a Bentley. She's the blond bimbo of the year (Haley wouldn't disclose how much Hilton got to appear in the ad, but he noted: "The media rebroadcasts are worth far more than we paid her.")


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