In the course of brainstorming ideas for the MBlog, I asked a few MB staffers over lunch about marketing and advertising campaigns that they found particularly memorable. I was shocked when none of them remembered my number one pick, The Subservient Chicken. Obviously this had to be rectified immediately.

As some of you may remember, The Subservient Chicken was a Burger King campaign created by The Barbarian Group for Crispin Porter + Bogusky back in 2004. The campaign included TV, print and, the best part, a weird little website that was, arguably, the very first ad campaign to hit the web and go viral.

Thanks to the miracle of the world web wide (and the same realities that make posting compromising pictures of yourself online inadvisable) you still can view the site here.

It’s weird. It’s kinda creepy. It’s definitely not pretty. There’s even something vaguely vulgar about the whole thing. But back in 2004 I found it fascinating, and apparently I wasn’t the only one. The site received over half a billion hits, and generated the sales lift Burger King was looking for (and then some).

Obviously I’m not suggesting that all of MB’s owner-managed clients immediately find costumes, film themselves jumping around their basements, put it online and call it marketing. There are, however, a few important lessons that more mainstream companies can learn from The Subservient Chicken.

1. Your Customers Are Not Made of Glass

Go ahead and treat your customers like gold, but there’s no need to coddle them. Surprise them, intrigue them, level with them—don’t patronize them.

2. Season the Tried and True With a Dash of the Unexpected

There was no guarantee that the Subservient Chicken was going to be a hit.  It doesn’t take psychic powers to surmise that the bulk of Burger King’s budget went to TV and print ads. The website was the bigger risk and the smaller investment. Allocating a small slice of your marketing budget to trying new things will help keep things fresh for your audience and could produce outstanding results.

3. Give Your Audience a Reason to Pay Attention

When interacting with today’s empowered customers, you’ve got to give in order to receive. That means creating ads that provide real value to your audience. The Subservient Chicken didn’t educate or enlighten me—heck, I didn’t even get a coupon—but it did entertain and intrigue me and that was enough to make it worth my time.

At Marketing Breakthroughs, working with owner-managed companies is our specialty, and our focus is always generating a solid return on our clients’ marketing dollars. We don’t believe in gimmicks and chicken suits, but we do appreciate novel ideas. Subservient Chicken, we salute you.