The ad for the company's new Teriyaki Bowls riffs off the word "bowls" and how similar it sounds to a slang term for testicles.
The ad's wink-wink attitude during a time when many people are coming forward to talk about sexual harassment in the workplace is upsetting to some. Adweek, a trade publication that covers the advertising industry, called it "one of the most tone-deaf ads of the #MeToo era."
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The star of the commercial, a cartoon-headed mascot named Jack, tells viewers, "While other burger places serve the same old stuff, I'm the only with the bowls to serve something different" and later informs a male office mate, "You've got some pretty nice bowls there. And so does Dan." A female co-worker adds, "Those are some nice bowls," and another woman chimes in, "Everyone's gonna want to get their hands on Jack's bowls."
The ad then cuts to another office scene where an executive informs Jack that the company's lawyers aren't comfortable with the ad campaign. Jack is surprised he can't say "People love my bowls" and similar sentences.
The TV spot is for Jack in the Box's pair of new dishes — steak or chicken covered with teriyaki sauce and served with white or brown rice.
The San Diego-based chain defended the commercial.
"As a brand known by its fans for its tongue-in-cheek, playful sense of humor, this ad is simply a creative and humorous expression around the teriyaki bowl product," the company said in a statement. "It intends to highlight how a burger brand, such as Jack in the Box, dares to go beyond the usual fast-food fare and serve something different. This ad is not diminishing any movement, and we stand firmly against any form of harassment and value those who have the guts to combat it."
Controversy is one way companies generate buzz about themselves. In the fast-food world where competition is especially fierce, chains sometimes turn to stunts to attract the attention of customers -- and their wallets. The most recent high-profile case is IHOP's faux name change earlier this summer; the chain pretended to re-brand itself IHOb to launch its new burger menu.
The end of the Jack in the Box TV commercial shows the hashtag #JACKSBOWLS in bold type.
"It'll alienate some customers, but then again, we're talking about it, so it may bring Jack in the Box to the top of people's awareness," said Deb Gabor, CEO of Austin-based Sol Marketing. "It could potentially have a positive effect" on sales.
On social media, reactions to the Jack in the Box ad were mixed.
Many on Twitter said the ad was funny and not offensive.
Some felt the ad was inappropriate.
Others were more neutral.
Jack in the Box stock was $85.50, down 23 cents or 0.27 percent in early-afternoon trading on Wednesday.
The San Diego-based chain has more than 2,200 restaurants in 21 states and Guam.