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The Wahlburger Effect, How Reality TV Leveraged a Good Business Into a Great One

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The first reality shows I can remember growing up have little in common with today's brethren. Shows like TV's Bloopers and Practical Jokes, Candid Camera and Kids Say the Darndest Things existed in an era where shock held little value and the laughs were innocent (pardon me if I sound overly nostalgic). The reality tv of today, birthed from the writers strike of 2007, is more and more a lesson in schadenfreude. Real Housewives, The Kardashians, Jersey Shore and its ilk are built on a feeling of voyeurism as we peek at the underbelly of humanity in general and celebrity in particular. So where in all of this does a reality show about a Boston burger joint fit in and why is it marketing gold?

For show's like A&E's Wahlburgers the answer falls in an unlikely place, Saturday morning cartoons. As a child of the 80's I grew up in what can be considered the golden age of childrens cartoons. From The Smurfs to He-Man, Rainbow Brite to G.I. Joe the cartoons of the early 80's glued children to television screens by the millions. What neither I or any of my friends understood was that we were spending hours upon hours of our childhoods watching kiddie infomercials. More often than not the toys associated with these cartoons predated the cartoons themselves. My favorite childhood cartoons were blatantly and subliminally pedaling action figures, sugary cereal, video games and a host of other products under the guise of entertainment.

Wahlburgers, while not targeting middle schoolers, shows that the best products are a multi-sensual experience for which the consumer isn't sure where the line between promotion and product lie. It's hard to say how many Wahlburger customers become viewers and vice versa. What we do know is that the burger franchise has expanded within the Boston area and is spreading to other major cities based on good food and a glimpse behind the curtain with the burger peddlers celebrity owners the Wahlberg boys, Donnie and Mark alongside their brother Paul.

Behind (and occasionally in front) of the camera lies Rick Vanzura, CEO of Wahlburgers, who has seen first hand how the show has driven company growth. "I think the show has been great. 9 Episodes have been completed and another 18 have been picked up. Obviously it's beneficial for the advertising. How many restaurants have their name in the title of a TV show that's seen by millions of people? Not many! It's an opportunity to peek into the Wahlberg's life, specifically Paul's. The more people see that, the more it helps Wahlburgers. Once the show aired, we got so much busier. We were busy before, but now were just jammed."

As an embattled veteran of the theme restaurant business, (In a past life I worked the door at Fashion Cafe, "owned" by Naomi Campbell, Elle MacPhearson, Claudia Schiffer and Christy Turlington) I know the slight of hand that happens when you pose celebrities next to mediocre food. Generally by the time you realize what you're being served it's too late. Wahlburgers thankfully seems to have started where many celebrity owned restaurants don't, with the food itself. With a Zagat review north of 20 in all categories and high average reviews on perpetually unhappy review sites like Yelp and Trip Advisor it is clear that if Paul Wahlberg were Paul Smith, with his full service burger joint would have still enjoyed some success much the same as any number of casual dining spaces that are upgrading a variety of American staples.

As for the show, some have criticized it for a lack of drama. Be sure, there are no villains on Wahlburgers, which if you can move past the rubbernecking train wrecks of your average reality show, can be quite refreshing. Instead the show is anchored by a family that knows the bottom rung of the economic ladder and appreciate the fruits of their blue collar climb to celebrity. The shows neutral base creates a great vehicle to promote the Wahlburgers franchise. After all who wants to eat at, or even invest in a place with an ownership you find distasteful?

It is naive to not look at the Wahlburger show as at least in part a promotional vehicle for the restaurant chain. And that's ok because unlike cartoon filled youth, we are all willing participants with the dividing lines between advertisement, entertainment and product both strongly defined and seamlessly integrated. While the entertainment world pushed second screens Wahlburgers pushes second helpings and in turn two completely different experiences that have driven the other to success with the show slated for a second season and the restaurant expanding to new territories.