How about a bathing beauty with that Thickburger?

Hardee's plasters swimsuit models on its drink cups

Observations

July 31, 2005|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

McDonald's is offering Neopets - cute, cuddly animals - with its Happy Meals this month. Burger King is offering action figures from the hit film Fantastic Four. And Hardee's, not to be outdone, is offering a woman.

Four of them, in fact. The perennial also-ran of American fast food is plastering color photos of Sports Illustrated swimsuit models on its large drinks. Four different models are featured ("Collect them all!" Hardee's urges), posing in bikinis on sunny beaches. The cups went on sale two weeks ago.

Swimsuit models and fast food don't seem to go together - if the women ate much of it, they'd lose their jobs - but Hardee's is counting on the babes to lure young men into its restaurants. The once-ailing chain has set its sights squarely on one demographic: 18-to-34 year-old males.

"Hardee's is marketing to what we internally call the `young, hungry guy,' " said Jeff Mochal, a spokesman for the chain. He said the cups are perfectly appropriate for a family restaurant: "In terms of what actually appears in the magazine, these are pretty toned down. We think of it as a good collectible item."

To collect some of these ourselves, we recently had lunch at the Hardee's on Crain Highway in Glen Burnie, just down the street from the Baltimore Washington Medical Center. That would prove useful in the event of a coronary incident, which seemed more likely with each bite of a Hardee's trademark Thickburger.

(Inexplicably, there are no Hardee's in Baltimore City.)

Few people at the Glen Burnie Hardee's were drinking from swimsuit-model cups, opting instead for the plain paper variety, featuring the inoffensive Hardee's yellow smiley-face star. Patrons shown the SI cups did not care for them.

"It's exploitation of women, that's what it is," said Debbie Gonzales, who was eating a Thickburger with her granddaughter. "They don't need to put a model on a cup in a fast-food place. I think they're just trying to attract the men."

But even some men weren't all that attracted to the cups. At the Hardee's on Nursery Road in Linthicum last week, 27-year-old Rob Harting was drinking a Coke out of a Vanessa Lorenzo cup.

"I didn't notice," he insisted. "I was too busy looking at my wife." Indeed, his new wife, Jennifer Harting, was sitting across the table from him. She said she wasn't offended by the cups. Still, Harting wasn't sure he'd take the cup home with him.

"I could keep it," he said, "but I can't guarantee how long it would stay in the house."

Hardee's strategy to attract young males is about more than just cups. The restaurant has rolled out a line of big, meaty burgers. The smallest of them is the one-third pound Thickburger, which clocks in at 850 calories and 57 grams of fat. If that's not enough, you can try the Monster Thickburger, at 1,410 calories and 107 grams of fat.

The restaurant itself is loaded with pictures of big, dripping burgers - beef pornography if ever there were such a thing. There are also, of course, cardboard displays touting the new swimsuit-model cups.

Each cup features two photos of a swimsuit model - a close-up of her face and, occasionally, cleavage, and then an inset photo showing the model lounging on a green lawn or by the water. There are also biographical notes (these women are people, not objects, remember), such as this one about Shirley Mallmann: "She enjoys many outdoor activities, such as camping and snowboarding."

This month, Hardee's is also running ads initially created for its corporate brother, Carl's Jr., showing Paris Hilton soaping herself atop a Bentley. The chain's play for young men is another example of the stratification shaping the fast-food industry. McDonald's is courting women with its fruit and walnut salads, while Subway appeals to calorie-counters.

Hardee's was in a free-fall through the 1990s, analysts say, having trouble differentiating itself from its larger rivals. On the brink of bankruptcy, Hardee's was taken over by CKE Restaurants Inc., owner of the Carl's Jr. chain, and the focus was shifted.

"Hardee's had to find a niche, and this, plus the Paris Hilton campaign, was a big step in that direction, signaling this is what we're going after and frankly, if we turn off some women, so be it," said Ron Paul, president of Technomic, a Chicago-based food-service consulting firm.

The strategy appears to be paying off. Through this spring, Hardee's reported 21 straight quarters of same-store sales increases and said it was selling more burgers than at any time since 1994.

The swimsuit model promotion, then, seemed a natural step in the direction Hardee's was heading. A Sports Illustrated spokesman said the magazine had never before used a fast-food franchise to promote its models. But the photos of the models are already sold on calendars, DVDs and cell-phone wallpaper.

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