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When devices become too invasive

Technology

New York - A new Burger King TV commercial is designed to trigger Google’s voice-controlled speakers in viewers’ homes, adding a wrinkle to the debate over whether such devices have become too invasive.

In the 15-second ad, a Burger King employee says, “OK, Google. What is the Whopper burger?” If viewers are watching the commercial near a Google Home gadget, the “OK Google” prompt will cause the device to read the Wikipedia entry for the sandwich. The TV spots are airing nationally starting Wednesday on networks such as Spike, MTV and Comedy Central.

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The whopper burger from the Burger King fastfood francise at the Foreshore. Picture Ian Landsberg

The commercial extends Burger King’s record of trying to push the envelope with its marketing. In 2015, the restaurant chain sought a “truce” with rival McDonald’s Corp. by offering to create a peace burger called the McWhopper. It also brought back its deliberately creepy King mascot in recent years. The character loomed in the background during the much-hyped boxing match of Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao in 2015.

The Google stunt could renew concerns about whether voice-activated technology has unintended consequences. Amazon.com Inc.’s Echo devices and Samsung Electronics's smart televisions have faced criticism from privacy groups over the extent of the conversations and data that they track.

Read also: Burger King's saucy response to Big Mac Day

The Echo, which answers to “Alexa,” also lets consumers buy products with quick voice commands - creating the potential for accidental orders.

Trailing Alexa

Burger King, owned by Restaurant Brands International, said it’s not collaborating with Alphabet’s Google on the ads. But the plug could give a boost to a device that is playing catch-up with the Echo. Analysts estimate that Google shipped about 500 000 units in the first quarter after the Home product debuted late last year.

“It’s a cool way, and a bold way, to surprise our guests,” said Jose Cil, president of the Burger King brand. The company believes the interaction will be “very positive,” he said.

A broader US restaurant slump is forcing restaurant chains like Burger King to vie more fiercely for customers. Some have introduced new menu items and value deals, while others have increased advertising to boost customer traffic. McDonald’s began offering $1 and $2 drink specials this month, while Wendy’s has been remodeling stores and touting its fresh beef.

Burger King also rolled out a new version of its chicken sandwich last month, and it enlisted “haters” - people who criticised the old sandwich on social media - to market the revamped item.

“Burger King has been doing creative, innovative things for a long time,” Cil said. “It’s something that we feel strongly about.”

-With assistance from Craig Giammona and Mark Bergen.

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