America loves Billy Eichner. His game show Billy On The Street is a breakout hit for Fuse, his cameos on Parks and Recreation are an endless delight, and his bit with Seth Meyers at the 2014 Emmy Awards saved the whole telecast from oblivion. On the other hand, America isn’t so sure how it feels about Burger King. The fast food purveyor is popular but also locked in an eternal death struggle with hated rival McDonalds. The pair seemed evenly matched until the monarchist meat merchants made the fatal mistake of crossing America’s sweetheart.
Last night comedian Billy Eichner pulled no punches tweeting “Hey @BurgerKing-thanks for stealing my act for ur new commercial!! Except its not as funny & everyone knows u stole it. GET YOUR OWN IDEAS.” Eichner was referring to an ad, which you can watch below if you hate to laugh, which blatantly copies his trademark hyper-aggressive take on the familiar man-on-the-street interview. While Eichner certainly didn’t invent it, he is certainly the person who popularized the shouty, dizzying form that the Burger King ad is trying to appropriate. Social media predictably reacted with a flurry of tweets directed at Burger King supporting Eichner’s claim including outraged tweets from comedians like Michael Ian Black and Seth Rogen, plus a few supportive mentions from fast food rival McDonalds.
The ad attempts to capture Eichner’s bombastic style, and though it fails utterly, it is still clearly a work of imitation. Eichner has tackled the problem with humor, but the incident raises a question. Despite being a rising star in mainstream media Eichner built his career online. Much of his work, including hundreds of “Billy on the Street” clips, is available for free on YouTube. Does his status as an online star give brands the mistaken impression that it’s alright to rip off his work? NMR recently reported on a similar case in which YouTuber Cory Williams, better known as DudeLikeHella, had his content hijacked, wholesale, by restaurant franchise Chuck E. Cheese.
In the past, online content creators have been called the buskers and street musicians of the internet, peddling their works to the world for views. The vast archive of content they create is free to the public and their ideas can appear ripe for plundering by brands and the ad agencies they employ. That perception is slowly changing as YouTube creators gain greater recognition, but if someone with as much mainstream credibility as Billy Eichner can still get burned by a major brand then we still have a long way to go.