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Serving Up Truth with a Side of Whopper: Should Burger King be More Transparent?
During this past week, the media landscape has been abuzz with stories about a lawsuit targeting Burger King. The crux of the dispute? The allegation that Burger King advertisements portray “The Whopper”—their signature burger— as significantly bigger than it is in real-life.
“Roy Altman, a federal judge in Miami, said parts of the proposed class-action suit against the company could proceed. This includes the accusation that—on its in-store advertisements and menus—Burger King depicts its burgers looking 35% larger than they actually are. The suit also claims that, in reality, Whoppers have less than half the meat as advertised.”
This is interesting for multiple reasons, but the first one, which is also very personal, is that when I teach a case on the value of transparency, penned by Ryan Buell, this image serves as a motivating example:
The point of the picture is not so much about the size, but about how while the ads and displays show the one on the left, what we usually get looks much more like the “thing” on the right.
Burger King’s response went something like this:
“‘Food in advertisements is and always has been styled to make it look as appetizing as possible,’ representatives for Burger King wrote. ‘That is hardly news; reasonable consumers viewing food advertising know it innately. This lawsuit unreasonably pretends otherwise.’”
But don’t think Burger King’s the lone wolf here! Last year, McDonald’s and Wendy’s had their own New York “burger beef” day in court!
And don’t get me started on Taco Bell. They got wrapped up (pun intended!) in their own drama for allegedly playing up the meaty goodness in their Crunchwrap Supreme. Everyone’s getting a piece of the fast-food courtroom pie!
And these examples all raise the pivotal questions: Why not showcase products in their authentic form? Does deception pay off? Are they even fooling anyone?
To answer this, we must delve into how consumers perceive and process the information presented to them.
Deciphering Customer Behavior: Understanding Waiting Time Information in Call Centers
I’ve spent quite a bit of time on the notion of how customers process information, albeit, not in the burger world. The information regarded a call center setting.
In a paper with Achal Bassamboo and Qiuping Yu, we studied how customers respond to information about anticipated delays in a bank’s call center. You might be thinking, “Did the firm really give them an honest estimate of the wait time?”
Well… Yes and No.
The firm wanted to be truthful, but the truth is a murky business. Imagine a call center with various customer types (different languages, varying call reasons, different priority levels), trying to tell a customer how long they’ll have to wait. It’s difficult. The firm was doing its best to provide this information and even used a sophisticated algorithm (for those who care: something equivalent to Last Customer to Enter Service).
Unfortunately, the information was relayed to the customer about 30 seconds too late, as if they just hopped in line. So imagine being told, “Your wait is roughly a minute and 17 seconds.” As researchers, we knew their waiting time wasn’t a minute and 17 seconds. So the question now was: How do customers decipher this information and what do they do with it?
So, we built a model that monitored how customers decide whether and when to remain or not on the line, given the information provided. The model parameters were used to fit the data. I already wrote about this paper before, so I will not repeat the results, but I would like to highlight the two most important ideas that came out of it.
Customers are fundamentally rational beings. In our study, customers made the decisions with relatively high predictability, usually leaving at the “optimal” time given the information provided.
Customers adapt and learn quickly from the information provided: Customers didn’t use the words verbatim rather, they behaved as if they understood that the “message” is just a “message” and one should disregard its verbal content, and map it to the waiting time distribution that was the correct given the information.
This is very much along the lines of what the Burger King rep was saying. Customers know.
This raises a much broader question of language usage (and photos are part of a language).
The role of language, how people use language, and what the meaning of language is, merits a deeper discussion.
Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Theories of Language: Picture and Usage
Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the two most important philosophers of the 20th century (together with Heidegger, in case you’re asking), is best remembered for his pioneering insights into the nature of language. His work primarily revolves around two distinctive theories: the Picture Theory of Language and the Usage (or Game) Theory of Language.
Picture Theory of Language: Wittgenstein’s early thoughts, as presented in his work Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, revolve around the idea that language depicts reality. In essence, statements or propositions ”picture” or “mirror” facts in the world. For example, the sentence “The cat is on the mat” serves as a linguistic picture of a real-world situation wherein a particular cat occupies space on a particular mat. The structure of the sentence reflects the structure of the reality it represents. If the proposition matches the real-world state of affairs, it’s true; if not, it’s false.
Usage (or Game) Theory of Language: In his later work, primarily in Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein shifted his perspective. He propounds that meaning arises from how words are used in particular contexts, akin to games with set rules. Therefore, words don’t have inherent meanings, but derive them from their usage in various “language games.” This means that language isn’t just a static reflection of the world, but a dynamic tool shaped by human activity and culture. The meaning of a word or phrase is closely tied to its role in the myriad of activities we engage in.
Let’s apply this to our call center delay announcements, and then burgers.
The way a customer processes a delay announcement such as, “Your call is important to us, please wait for the next available representative,” can be understood through Wittgenstein’s lens as follows:
Through his Picture Theory: A customer might interpret the announcement literally. The statement paints a picture of the current scenario: the call center is busy, but they value the customer’s call. If the waiting time is short and a representative soon addresses the caller, the proposition (announcement) matches the real-world situation and is deemed true. However, if a long delay ensues, customers might perceive the statement as false or misleading, given the discrepancy between the pictured scenario and the actual experience.
Through his Usage Theory: Considering the frequency with which such announcements are made across various call centers and the variability in actual waiting times, customers might understand the announcement less as a factual representation and more as a conventional phrase—a part of the “call center language game.” Over time and with repeated exposure, customers might treat the announcement as a customary expression of acknowledgment rather than a literal depiction of the current call volume or importance. Their interpretation hinges on past experiences, cultural understanding of politeness, and the general practice of call centers.
In summary, Wittgenstein’s theories provide valuable insight into how customers might perceive and interpret standard communication in service contexts. While some may expect an announcement to picture the true state of affairs, others might see it as a routine aspect of customer service’s broader “game” with its unique rules and conventions.
Our conclusion: The Game theory (no pun intended) is better supported in our setting. It’s interesting that Wittgenstein himself rejected his picture theory later in life.
The information accuracy of Burger King’s case can be viewed through the lens of Wittgenstein’s language theories. For instance, the context in which a burger image is presented—be it from an individual or an advertisement—alters its interpretation.
This leads us to a broader question regarding the Burger King lawsuit. While the legal action may have merit, demonstrating tangible damages may be complex. After all, seasoned Burger King patrons (no pun!) are well-acquainted with the product, possessing a real-world frame of reference.
Companies often toe the line between offering accurate information and presenting an aspirational image. Consider the case of Joseph A. Bank, known for its perpetual sales. Regular patrons recognize this marketing tactic, but the uninitiated might perceive it differently. Essentially, businesses gamble on the hope that their consumers possess a discerning eye.
Pivoting back to Ryan Buell’s research, several surprising insights are revealed: Highlighting the downsides or negatives of a product, like credit cards, doesn’t necessarily deter potential customers. By this logic, showcasing a less-than-perfect burger might not harm a brand’s reputation as one might think. But let’s take a closer look at his results, which are also quite nuanced.
The Experiment: A bank conducted an experiment on its credit card website with the goal of seeing how transparency affects customer behavior. Employing a total of 393,036 customers, the bank divided them equally into two groups: one group saw only the credit card’s benefits (Control Condition), while the other group saw both the benefits and the trade-offs, like annual fees (Treatment Condition). The data used for the study was based on the customers’ first visit to the credit card website. Researchers looked at various stages of a customer’s journey, like starting an application, completing it, opening an account, activating the card, and using the card.
They wanted to see if transparency (showing benefits and trade-offs) made any difference in how customers moved through these stages.
The Findings: While being clear about the trade-offs didn’t necessarily attract more customers, it sure did change how customers played the game! Those treated to this “tradeoff transparency” danced to a different tune. They not only picked varied cards but also splurged 9.9% more every month.
And here’s the main point: Nine months down the line, they were 20.5% less likely to cut ties and drop their cards. The cherry on top? These high-flying, loyal customers were also 10.8% less likely to be tardy with their payments in the first half-year.
The Age Game: But, here’s another interesting insight: Younger cardholders, possibly those still navigating the ins and outs of credit, didn’t react much to this transparency. But the older, credit-savvy folks' spending jumped by a whopping 19.2%, and the chances they'd say “goodbye” after nine months plummeted by 33.7%.
The Promo Perspective: One little hiccup was those who came aboard for a promo. The transparency spell didn’t hold much magic for them in terms of usage and loyalty. So, transparency works on “organic” customers, not those you managed to lure.
But the main conclusion: it pays to be honest! What drove the results were two main ideas. Simply being honest, doesn’t deter customers, but also doesn't attract them. It just allows them to make better decisions. Customers are more informed than firms on their actual needs. If lured to get products they don’t need or are not compatible with their needs, they use them less frequently, and then they don’t renew them.
Flipping the Patty to Burger King
So what if Burger King applied a sprinkle of this “tradeoff transparency” magic? Imagine if BK was clear about the trade-offs of their juicy burgers versus their competitors. Sure the size might be smaller, but perhaps the flavor is more intense, the ingredients are fresher, or there’s a secret sauce that others just can't replicate. Maybe they are less consistent, but they are real and always fresh.
Why not provide accurate information?
With transparency, Burger King might not necessarily attract more burger enthusiasts. Still, those who walk through its doors could end up spending more, returning frequently, and—just like the credit card users—becoming loyal patrons who appreciate the brand's honesty.
So why don’t burger chains do that?
If there is no tradeoff, there is no “good and bad.” There's only bad, and whether customers are primarily low-information or low-frequency customers.
As we have seen both in my study and in Ryan’s, high-information customers know how to interpret it anyway. But the low-information customers may take the information quite literally. By presenting the “ideal burger,” you are not influencing the “regulars,” but you are luring new customers, who might choose to stay.
One may also argue that the role of photos is to elicit emotions that can't be analyzed in the realm of rational decision makers.
So the next time you find yourself contemplating a fast-food choice and you see those juicy photos, ask yourself what you really expect. The burger in the photo or the one you know you are going to see in the bag soon?
Just food for thought!
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