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Opinion Burger King came up with one whopper of an earworm

The Burger King Whopper meal. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)
4 min

Apologies. You are going to hate me for the words I’m about to type. Here goes anyhow:

Whopper, Whopper, Whopper, Whopper.
Junior, double, triple Whopper.

If you’ve been anywhere near a TV screen during a football game in recent months, you might be familiar with these words and the irritatingly catchy melody they are set to. You have probably sung them, over and over, in the shower. During your morning commute. Also during your evening commute. And while you’re supposed to be working, and as soon as you wake up, drift off to sleep, or try to converse, eat or breathe.

If at any point in recent months you had miraculously managed to dislodge this musical phrase from your head, the song probably just burrowed its way back into your brain-folds, a few moments ago, simply from reading this column.

In fact, you are probably singing the Whopper song right now.

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On the other hand, if you happen to be among those blissfully ignorant of this earworm, I strongly urge you: Save yourself. Stop reading right now. Definitely don’t click on this link.

(I tried to warn you.)

Burger King’s marketing campaign has already (ear)wormed its way into much of the national consciousness. Initially, it rose to prominence through some high-profile NFL ad spots; helped along by some possibly tone-deaf tune timing, the jingle became a social media phenomenon unto itself.

It has been memed and remixed to death, often alongside football commentary. It has been painstakingly annotated on lyrics websites. It has been mashed up with Daft Punk (“harder, better, faster, Whopper”) and an Eminem rap battle.

It’s been spun off as an elaborate Queen parody (“Bohemian Whoppsody”).

@thereiruinedit Replying to @fleur_sauvage444 It’s never too late to un-follow. @queenofficial #bohemianrhapsody #mashup #whopper #whopperwhopperwhopperwhopper @burgerking ♬ Bohemian Whoppsody - There I Ruined It

There’s a dirge-like adaptation, crafted for eat-your-feelings depressives, as well as an elegant wedding march, for any carnivorous romantics out there.

In my household, we refer to the jingle as the “chicken song,” after the even more contagious poultry-themed reprise that Burger King itself released. No matter what I do, no matter how hard I try, “chicken, chicken, chicken, chicken” stays in my head for days, pecking at my brain. This aural avian flu seems to have infected much of the rest of the U.S. population, too. Sample comments on the YouTube page for the “chicken song”: “My mind radio feels like it’s been permanently hijacked” and “Just please make it stop.”

Hoping to keep the phenomenon going, Burger King has also released other iterations. When I wrote to the fast-food company to request an interview about the origins and evolution of this hit jingle, I had to wait several days for a reply. It was a link to yet another reprise: “Burger-cheese, burger-cheese, burger-cheeeese …” (“I think you just got rick-rolled,” said the distressingly unsympathetic editor who urged me to write this piece.)

So what, exactly, makes this ditty — like much of the cuisine it’s intended to sell — so sticky?

The jingle is good, and terrible, and somehow also good because it’s terrible. Beyond that, I wasn’t sure whether there was a method to the madness. So, I consulted a couple of actual musical experts.

First up was professional songwriter Leslie Pearl perhaps best known for writing the enduring Folger’s jingle (“The best part of waking up …”).

“This is the most pristine campaign I’ve heard, and I’ve been involved in a lot of jingles,” Pearl gushed. She praised it for its hip-hop-like styling, which she said was designed to target a younger urban audience primed to want burgers “their way”; meanwhile the ad company’s decision to “refresh” a jingle from the 1970s might “subliminally” appeal to older customers.

But the main appeal, she acknowledged, was the absurdist, repetitive opening Whoppers. Sorry, I meant lyrics.

Elizabeth Margulis, who directs the Music Cognition Lab at Princeton University, largely agreed.

She said songs are most likely to become earworms when listeners have been exposed to them recently and repeatedly. “It also helps if the song is conventional enough to be somewhat predictable and familiar but also has some surprising or unusual twists.” Perhaps it was wise then for Burger King to keep releasing all those new iterations, while encouraging fans and haters (and also all the fan-haters) to keep remixing and publicizing it themselves.

Though presumably, if there were a foolproof formula for crafting a memorable jingle, every ad firm would use it. “I’m sure the machine learning folks are on it,” Margulis said.

Of course, the more important question is whether any of this is actually selling more Whoppers (or, chicken-chicken-chicken-chicken). Burger King has ducked the question. The ad campaign, officially titled “You Rule,” seems to produce spectacular brand recall, said Zahra Nurani, vice president of marketing communications for Burger King North America. But as for burger sales: “We can’t provide specifics on performance."

A whopper if I’ve ever heard one.