Burger King's Flame-broiled Privacy Fail

Everyone loves things getting smarter. Until it gets creepy.

And by “creepy,” we mean, of course, when advertisers start using things to stalk—I mean track—you.

Sometimes that tracking happens in very strange ways. Consider the curious case of the Burger King ad that broke free of the television to enter the living room.

A marketing stunt by the home of the Whopper involved a TV ad aimed not at people but at the Google Home devices installed in their houses. Like all of these “home assistants,” the Google version uses a wake word. If you say, “OK Google,” its electronic ears prick up, and it waits for a command or a query, like “play Air Supply Radio” or “turn off the living room lights” or “what is Trump’s golf handicap?”

The BK ad goes something like this: “You’re watching a 15-second Burger King ad, which is unfortunately not enough time to explain all the fresh ingredients in the Whopper sandwich,” says the presumed fast-food aficionado in the commercial. “But I got an idea. O.K. Google, what is the Whopper burger?”

Then the idea of course is that all of the Google Home devices activate and start spitting out Whopper ingredient stats from Wikipedia—as if anyone, anyone at all, would enjoy that sort of thing.

In fact, enough people apparently DIDN’T enjoy that sort of thing that Google was made aware of the stunt just hours after the ad started airing—and, according to the New York Times, it immediately tweaked things so that Google Home wouldn’t respond to the ad—presumably through an OTA software update.

I’m sure that the ad team that came up with the idea thought it was clever and millennial and fresh and new and next-gen.

“With the onset of consumers buying intelligent system devices and using them at home, we thought this was a good way to make a connection and go directly to guests and tell a story about our product,” José Cil, president of Burger King, said in an interview with the Times.

They went “directly to guests,” all right. Ferris Bueller famously pioneered the idea of breaking the fourth wall, but this is ridiculous.

Parks Associates said that more than half (55%) of US broadband households now want to use voice to control their entertainment and smart home devices. However, the research firm also notes that privacy continues to be important to consumers for connected entertainment and smart home devices, with two-thirds of smart product owners rating safety and security notifications appealing.

Being in control—i.e., not hijacked by a Fortune 500 purveyor of flame-broiled patties—is important. Just 17% of US broadband households would have privacy concerns about smart home devices if they have greater control over their personal data.

“Consumer concerns about hackers shouldn’t inhibit market growth,” said Glenn Hower, senior analyst at Parks Associates. “Although privacy concerns are widespread, providing simple, configurable, consumer-controlled rules for data use will go a long way to mitigate privacy concerns and provide consumers with peace of mind.”

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