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Carl’s Jr.: Sex no longer sells

Until recently, Andrew Puzder served as chief executive of the company that owns Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s. He stepped down earlier this month, after withdrawing his nomination to become President Trump’s Labor Secretary. (Al Seib/Getty Images)
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For a dozen years, Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s have been best known for their racy — and often crass — commercials featuring scantily-clad women with the occasional hamburger.

Now the fast-food chains are trying to reverse course. Their new message, according to a new commercial: “Food, not boobs.”

Their newest ad, a 3-minute spot scheduled to air Sunday on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, attempts to dial back the raunchiness. In it, the fictional Carl Hardee Sr. — played by “Nashville” actor Charles Esten — shows up to reclaim the company from his son, Carl Hardee Jr. (also fictional, played by the comedian Drew Tarver).

“Take that down,” the older Hardee says, motioning to a giant portrait of Charlotte McKinney holding hamburgers against her bare bosom. The picture is replaced by a close-up of a hamburger.

Then Carl Hardee Sr. turns to the camera. “Hello, friend,” he says. “You know, when I started this company, it was about one thing: Pioneering a new way of food.”

A 60-second version of the ad, created by the advertising agency 72andSunny, will run during the NCAA championship game next week.

“It was time to evolve,” said Jason Norcross, executive creative director and partner of the Los Angeles-based agency, which has been making ads for Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s for eight years. “It was time to change. Those ads just weren’t driving business as they once did.”

The idea, Norcross said, was to help the company compete against newcomers like Shake Shack and the Habit Burger Grill. While Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s ads certainly drummed up publicity for the brands, Norcross said they weren’t exactly driving business anymore — not even among long-time customers, who tend to be “young, hungry guys.”

“The reality is, they became infamous for their advertising,” Norcross said. “Beyond that, people didn’t really know anything about them. We wanted to put the focus back on their products.”

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But, he added, it didn’t seem right to just ignore the company’s past.

“We couldn’t just go from being the provocative brand to the boring brand,” Norcross said. “We tried to take a self-aware approach and acknowledge the reputation they’ve had over the years.”

CKE Restaurants, the California-based parent company of Carl’s and Hardee’s, was until earlier this month led by Andrew Puzder, President Trump’s original nominee to lead the Labor Department. Although the two chains share the same advertising and largely offer the same foods, Carl’s Jr. locations tend to be in the western U.S., while Hardee’s are in the Midwest and Southeast.

Company executives said the racy ads didn’t have the impact that they once did.

“You and I certainly may like the ads we’ve been running,” Puzder, 66, told Stuart Varney on Fox Business on Thursday. But “young, hungry guys aren’t as affected by the racy ads with the swimsuit models because you can get a lot of that on the internet now. It’s not like it was 10, 12 years ago when we started this. Young guys today, the millennial young guys, are concerned with, where do you source your beef? What kind of cooking system do you have?”

The company’s racy commercials began in 2005, with a minute-long ad starring Paris Hilton in a skimpy bathing suit and high heels. In it, she seductively scrubs a Bentley, climbs up onto its hood and later crawls across the sudsy floor on all fours to take a bite of a Carl’s Jr. burger. The spicy barbecue burger is on screen for all of 3 seconds during the 60 second ad, which was banned before it even appeared on television.

A number of other women, including Kate Upton, Heidi Klum and Kim Kardashian have also starred in the company’s racy ads. Between them, they have chowed down the company’s burgers in negligees and leather bikinis, and eaten salads in beds and in bubble baths.

“Perhaps you’ve noticed that Carl’s Jr. is not exactly trying to market towards the ladies quite as much as they try to market on them,” a blogger for the women’s site Jezebel wrote said in 2013.

Puzder, who withdrew his nomination to become Labor Secretary in February after footage surfaced of his ex-wife saying he had physically abused her, recently defended the company’s provocative ads.

“I think that any grocery store you go into, or drug stores you’re going to see on magazine covers things that are more revealing than you saw in many of our ads,” he told Fox Business this month. “We saved the company with those ads. We saved a lot of jobs.”

But not even all of that bare skin could shore up sales at the company, which is owned by private-equity firm Roark Capital Group.

“The emphasize has always been on young, hungry guys, but it was time to broaden the spectrum,” Norcross said. “Hopefully this will help.”

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