Hard to believe it’s been almost 20 years since the premiere of Super Size Me, a documentary in which Morgan Spurlock experimented on himself by eating nothing but McDonald’s for a month. Back then, the film suggested that fast food chains were overdoing it with the menu items they offered. Now customers are suing over what they perceive as less-than-super-sized portions.
This week, for example, a U.S. district court judge rejected a bid by Burger King to dismiss a class-action lawsuit that claims it makes its Whopper hamburger look better in advertising than in reality. Images of ingredients overflowing the bun, for instance, suggest a sandwich that is 35 per cent larger than the actual Whopper, the suit alleges, and contains more than double the meat. (Where’s the beef, indeed.)
Regardless of who wins here – and there are similar class-action cases against McDonalds, Wendy’s and Taco Bell – it should really be categorized as a customer experience (CX) lawsuit, because the litigation reflects a gap between expectations and what was delivered.
The end of ‘But ads are like that’ excuse
In its legal response, for instance, Burger King suggested that advertising is by its nature based on exaggeration.
“Food in advertisements is and always has been styled to make it look as appetizing as possible . . . reasonable consumers know it innately.”
The judge seemed to agree, at least to a certain extent. He ruled that Burger King’s ads weren’t misleading because there were no hard numbers in them about the weight of a Whopper’s patty or its size. Instead, the suit is moving forward based on the possibility of “unjust enrichment.” This is a legal term for when one party (in this case Burger King) benefits in a way that is not fair to another party (its customers).
In CX terms, a brand is unjustly enriched when it develops a customer journey that starts by raising expectations so high that people will continue on it, even when the brand knows the post-purchase experience will not align with those expectations.
Think of how this might play out in other industries, like a hotel brand that showcases images on its web site of rooms that look palatial, but which turn out to be akin to shoe boxes once you check in. An airline, meanwhile, could put up billboards showing passengers lounging comfortably in their seats, but how will you feel if you book a flight with them and find your knees nearly folded up towards your chest?
As more companies say they’re competing on the quality of the customer experience they deliver, customers may be demanding greater accuracy in how those experiences are depicted.
Advertising the ideal might not be acceptable anymore because customers no longer see these depictions as simply marketing B.S. Instead, brands have been training them to see marketing as the beginning of a conversation they’re having with customers.
In fact, lawsuits are not the only way customers can share their feedback about these experiences. The idealistic images of a Whopper can easily be contrasted with what the average consumer can photograph with their smartphone and share on Instagram. This has also made the historical exaggeration in advertising harder to swallow, and for customers to see such images as CX promises brands are making them.
Take a good, hard look at the products and services that you’re offering as part of your CX. Ask yourself if the way you’re telling customers about them is grounded in everyday truth . . . or if a jury of your peers might conclude you’re telling them a real whopper.
Shane Schick tells stories that help people innovate, and to manage the change innovation brings. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Marketing magazine and has also been Vice-President, Content & Community (Editor-in-Chief), at IT World Canada, a technology columnist with the Globe and Mail and Yahoo Canada and is the founding editor of ITBusiness.ca. Shane has been recognized for journalistic excellence by the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance and the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.