Vid It is possible for a policy issue to jump the shark?
It's not a question we've ever felt the need to ask, but today Burger King – yes, the sweaty meat slinger – put out a advert in which it comes to the defense of net neutrality in America.
Quite why a fast-food joint would feel the need to weigh in the most controversial tech policy of recent years is, frankly, beyond us. Even more peculiarly, it's actually a pretty good ad.
"The repeal of Net Neutrality is a hot topic in America, but it can be very difficult to understand," the biz explained. "That’s why the BURGER KING® brand created WHOPPER® Neutrality, a social experiment that explains the effects of the repeal of Net Neutrality by putting it in terms anyone can understand: A WHOPPER® sandwich."
If that sentence is already hurting your brain, bear with us.
In the video ad, a series of what appear to be genuine customers grow increasingly frustrated when they are told that they will have to pay increasingly larger amounts to get their Whopper sooner.
The company even mocked up a menu that features three options: slow Mbps Whopper for $4.99, fast Mbps Whopper for $12.99, and hyperfast Mbps Whopper for $25.99. The Mbps, a Burger King server explains, stands for "Making burgers per second."
"So if we want a Whopper now, we have to pay $26?" asks one incredulous customer. A server explains with a straight face: "The Burger King corporation can make more money selling a chicken sandwich and chicken fries so now they're slowing down access to the Whopper."
In what is probably the funniest moment, a server hands over a paper bag with a Whopper in, but takes the burger out and explains that he can't hand it over for 42 seconds. He then stands there with the burger in his hand, looking at his watch, while the customer grows increasingly incensed.
That same punter is then interviewed outside – presumably after the company's recording team had explained the whole thing and got him to sign a release agreement, if not a paid actor. "The Whopper actually taught me about net neutrality. It's stupid but true," he tells the camera.
The ad even trolls Ajit Pai – the chairman of America's broadband watchdog, the FCC, who pushed through a reversal of the rules recently – with a quick clip at the end of the Burger King mascot drinking from a huge mug branded with chocolate company Reese's logo. Pai, for some bizarre reason, has the same huge mug, and keeps posting pictures of himself with it – a situation that previously led to him being mocked by telly funnyman John Oliver.
The ad closes with the line: "The internet should be like the Whopper – the same for everyone." And posts a "Save the Net" web address. Here it is the vid – and sure, yeah, we're helping Burger King spread its advertising for free, we know. It's just really weird.
What the actual funk?
So why on earth did Burger King produce this ad – especially when it has never made mention of the issue before – and as far as we can see, never sent in a comment to any of the FCC's public consultations on the topic, and hasn't added its name to the lawsuit aimed at stopping Pai's FCC from dismantling the current rules?
It is, of course, all about marketing.
Burger King is trying to pull off the anti-Pepsi. Last year, the sugary water maker created a tidal wave of anger when it attempted to usurp the Black Lives Matter protest movement – and its young adherents – by putting together a video advert featuring reality-TV star Kendall Jenner who halted her glamorous lifestyle to join a march.
The ad ended with Kendall opening a can of Pepsi and handing it to a cop, which appeared to resolve a tense standoff and leads to lots of excited, beautiful young people celebrating. The internet went nuts, Pepsi pulled the ad, and amazingly even apologized to Jenner.
If that was the wrong way to try to brand yourself for a younger audience, then Burger King is trying to find the right way – by grabbing a topic of interest to millions of young people and smearing its greasy product – the Whopper – all over it. All that's missing is a woke hashtag
It doesn't make any sense, of course. But then marketing rarely does.
And now we go to Big Cable
Meanwhile on the other side of the issue, lovable rogues AT&T and Comcast are trying a similar but opposite tactic: weasel words.
"Consumers need an internet bill of rights," reads a blog post "written" by AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson.
"Government rules for the internet have been debated for nearly as long as the internet has existed," the monster telco reminds us. "Regulators under four different presidents have taken four different approaches. Courts have overturned regulatory decisions. Regulators have reversed their predecessors. And because the internet is so critical to everyone, it's understandably confusing and a bit concerning when you hear the rules have recently changed, yet again."
Of course, what AT&T omits is that that very back-and-forth was created by the very industry of which it is a major player. Big Cable has spent hundreds of millions of dollars and countless hours lobbying policymakers and paying lawyers in order to stop net neutrality rules from passing.
It is a bit rich that it then uses the very chaos it helped create as an argument for its position. And it position is: "It is time for Congress to end the debate once and for all, by writing new laws that govern the internet and protect consumers."
Which is actually, in theory at least, the right thing to do: there has been no broad telecoms legislation since 1996 – when the internet was something that very few people had even heard of, let alone used every day.
A big part of the problem with net neutrality has been the fact that people keep trying to use outdated laws to deal with a very modern issue. The reason AT&T wants the US Senate and House of Reps to act now, however, is that it feels it will get the best result through a Republican Congress with a Republican president. And that the current rules can just as easily be overturned in future when the Democrats gain the upper hand.
Lights, camera, action?
And so, according to AT&T, "Congressional action is needed to establish an 'Internet Bill of Rights' that applies to all internet companies and guarantees neutrality, transparency, openness, non-discrimination and privacy protection for all internet users."
It wants "predictable rules for how the internet works," and to that end will "work with Congress, other internet companies and consumer groups in the coming months to push for an 'Internet Bill of Rights' that permanently protects the open internet for all users and encourages continued investment for the next generation of internet innovation."
Which is, again, a good sentiment. But you can be absolutely certain that behind closed doors that bill of rights will leave the way open for the cable industry to charge other companies for access to its networks.
And just for good measure, we are likely to see just how long the cable industry is going to be able to keep to its apparent commitments of a free and open internet. Some net neutrality restrictions on another cable giant – Comcast – expired over the weekend. They were imposed by the FCC seven years ago as part of the merger agreement between the cable company and NBC-Universal.
A related set of restrictions from the US Department of Justice are still in force and won't expire until September, but Comcast is now, in theory at least, allowed to introduce blocking and throttling on its network.
With the net neutrality rules overturned, people will be watching to see if Comcast takes advantage of its new-found "freedom" to start interfering with its subscribers' internet access. The telco knows it shouldn't but then at the same time, there's nothing to legally stop it.
It will interesting to see how long cable executives' patience lasts. And then what the reaction will be from all those who claimed the net neutrality rules were unnecessary when Comcast does, inevitably, start undermining it. ®