Caught on film! CKE tricks unsuspecting diners into eating Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. ’s hamburgers

“When it’s least expected, you’re elected. You’re the star today. With a hocus pocus, you’re in focus. It’s your lucky day.”

If the above prompts you to reply, “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera,” then you really know your TV theme-song lyrics, because those are the opening lines to the “Candid Camera” theme.

The show pioneered the hidden-camera technique and eventually spawned such contemporary imitators as “Punk’d” and “Girls Behaving Badly.” Advertisers, knowing a good thing when they saw it, also have used hidden cameras to capture the unscripted comments of real consumers. If you’re old enough, you’ll recall the Folgers commercials in which diners at a fancy restaurant were told they were drinking instant coffee instead of brewed coffee.

There’s often, but not always, a prank involved in hidden-camera commercials, and Hardee’s [3] and Carl’s Jr. [4] have created a humdinger to promote the chains’ Black Angus beef burgers.

They built a fake high-end restaurant, staffed with actors and called Grade A Restaurant, and pretended to sell burgers priced between $14 and $20 to unsuspecting customers, who actually were served the much lower-priced Hardee’s Thickburger or Carl’s Jr. Six Dollar Burger.

The restaurant was constructed within an existing restaurant in Malibu, Calif., and furnished with the works: elegant menus, white tablecloths, subtle lighting, rave reviews posted in the entrance and a framed profile of “Chef Hooper.” The restaurant even had valet service and a website to make everything seem more believable.

Now I know to what length people will go to play a practical joke—and to sell a hamburger.

Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s target market is “young hungry guys,” as parent company CKE Restaurants [5] Inc. of Carpinteria, Calif., put it in a news release. That’s also Burger King’s target market, and BK already has done a hidden-camera campaign.

Called “Whopper Freakout,” it broke late last year and caught the reactions of customers who were told that Burger King [6] had discontinued the Whopper. Actors portrayed the counter workers, but the customers were real and they were offered a McDonald’s [7] Big Mac in place of the Whopper. That didn’t go over well, and when the employee told them they could speak to the manager about it, out popped the King ad character to save the day and end the joke.

Burger King attributes part of its 4.2 percent increase in second-quarter domestic same-store sales to the campaign.

That’s reason enough for Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. to try the same thing. Their campaign was created by Mendelsohn Zien of Los Angeles and includes a website at www.fakerestaurant.com , which gives background on how the campaign was produced.

The premise of the spots is that an unsuspecting diner is invited to the restaurant by a friend, who’s in on the joke. They chow down on burgers, and as the spots draw to a close, servers place Hardee’s take-out bags on nearby tables. Then “Chef Hooper” comes out and explains the gag. The spots for Hardee’s markets broke in late May and introduce the Prime [8] Rib Thickburger. The Carl’s Jr. spots will begin airing June 22 and promote the Prime Rib [9] Six Dollar Burger.

The chains contend that their burgers rank as high or higher in quality compared with those at high-end sit-down restaurants, based on polls and burger competitions. The campaign is designed to prove the point. CKE [5] said that none of the customers in the commercials was disappointed with the Hardee’s or Carl’s Jr. burgers.

In the spots I viewed, the customers seemed to enjoy being the brunt of a joke. Perhaps they remembered that “it’s fun to laugh at yourself. It’s a tonic tried and true. It’s fun to laugh at yourself as other people do.”