NEW YORK — Which came first, the chicken or the ad?
No matter, feathers flew Friday in a spat between fast-food giant Burger King and a chicken restaurant chain over a promotional tie-in with the hit movie "Chicken Run."
The dispute stewed into a spicy cock-and-bull story as Chick-fil-A Inc. roasted Burger King for allegedly plucking the theme of its long-running ad campaign in which cows urge people to "Eat Mor Chikin."
Burger King, whose campaign twists that with the message "Save the Chickens — eat a Whopper," is offering "Chicken Run" toys based on the film and a special promotion of two of its Whopper hamburgers for $2.
A spokeswoman for Burger King, which is owned by Britain's food giant Diageo Plc., said the campaign was based entirely on the movie "Chicken Run," in which animated clay figure chickens try to escape from a "Stalag-17"-type chicken farm and a fate worse than fricassee.
"It's tongue-in-cheek," she said of the ad campaign, in which animated chicken protesters hold signs saying: "Eat a Whopper" and a voice-over intones "Eat more beef."
The DreamWorks movie by the creators of the popular British TV series "Wallace & Gromit," clearly curried favor with the public and took in $17.5 million at the box-office in its first weekend last week—hardly chicken feed. It was second in the pecking order behind Jim Carrey's "Me, Myself & Irene."
Reviewers didn't baste the movie, and one even compared it to Steve McQueen's classic World War Two film, "The Great Escape." Only here, the camp inmates are fowl and if they are caught flying the coop, they end up on a spit or in deep fat.
Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A, Inc. which sells chicken in more than 920 locations in 34 states and South Africa, said it had written to Burger King to complain. "Legal action is definitely the next step," said spokeswoman Stephanie Cartee.
She said Chick-fil-A had run ads since 1995, featuring real cows or animated bovines. Their beef is that to save their own bacon they want people to eat chicken instead.
"We are sure Burger King is fully aware of our 'Eat Mor Chikin' campaign since it tied them for second place (Silver) for the 1998 EFFIE Award for creativity and effectiveness in advertising," said Steve Robinson, senior vice president of marketing for Chick-fil-A, Inc.
Hen-pecked Burger King spokeswoman Kim Miller said the company had read Chick-fil-A's letter and was evaluating it. "We feel the case has no merit and we will defend ourselves vigorously," she told Reuters. "I don't want to be chicken, but I can't comment anymore."
She did point out the campaign was "tongue-in-cheek" and was all about "liberating chickens," even though Burger King also offers chicken dishes.
"If Burger King wants to discourage its customers from eating its own chicken sandwiches, that is their business," said Chick-fil-A's Robinson. "When they unashamedly impersonate our trademarked concepts and copyrighted expressions, it becomes our business.
"While imitation is always flattering, it is imperative that we protect our campaign's integrity by forbidding such blatant infringements," he said.
With Americans preparing to spend much of the long Fourth of July holiday weekend barbecuing or at the movies, there was no immediate word on whether "Chicken Run" would make kids shun the finger-lickin' attractions of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Popeye's or Chick-fil-A restaurants. That would be more bad news for an industry already suffering from a resurgence in consumer taste for red meat.
Tyson Foods Inc., the world's largest poultry producer, said last week its third-quarter earnings will fall short of analysts' estimates because of weak chicken prices.