Alex Bogusky was an advertising firebrand renowned as a groundbreaking idea machine. He created the Burger King royalty, the oversized fast-food icon that made BK some giant profits. He’s also done work for Domino’s and Coca-Cola.
Earlier this year, Bogusky suddenly had an epiphany. He left his advertising company, bought a cabin in Boulder, Colo., and started campaigning for “public health.” This week he launched a new website called FearLess Revolution (you can tell it’s hip because the “L” is capitalized), declaring him and his fellow crunchy activists to be “Insurgents in the New Consumer Revolution.” He’s now comparing himself to Ralph Nader.
As with the rest of his career, Bogusky’s speeches and pontificating on consumer issues are more style than substance, more art than science. He’s railed against corporations in general without providing specific details. He’s chatted it up with sustainability activists, complained about genetically modified foods, and asked readers for their thoughts on a “Consumer Bill of Rights.”
But is Bogusky’s change of heart a genuine one, or is he taking personal re-invention tips from Joaquin Phoenix? He made hundreds of millions of dollars for the same food companies that he now condemns. Bokusky self-flagellates endlessly about his decision to pass up a $15 million offer this year to stick with his job. But that’s small potatoes for the man who was once one of the most well-known ad executives on the planet. If Bogusky is serious, shouldn’t he return all the blood money he’s earned so far? Or at least donate it to charity?
There’s a good deal of deserved skepticism about Bogusky’s activist conversion.
Says a former colleague who still considers Bogusky a friend, “He's a manipulator, a master manipulator. He's good at putting on the shtick. No one knows if it's manufactured or not.” In the words of one award-winning chief creative officer who has served on industry-award-show juries with Bogusky: “He is a master of disguise, in a way. ‘Aw, shucks, little old me.’ It's cute Alex, it's charming, but it's a disguise. The way he managed that room would have made Machiavelli proud. He's a master at nonverbal communication. He doesn't go straight at it, he does little tiny things designed to make you feel slightly self-conscious, uncomfortable, off balance, and then he can sort of bring you along in the direction he wants to bring you.”
Fast Company magazine collected a veritable parade of disparaging quotes from Bogusky’s off-the-record former colleagues. This newly minted anti-business hero apparently once ran his company like a sweatshop, forcing his employees to work obscene hours and exercising total control over them. Danielle Sacks, the Fast Company author, called a therapist for help to diagnosing Bogusky, concluding that he could even be a sociopath.
And yet Bogusky is in a position to scare and deceive good people who have no problem with the occasional burger or pizza. His ultimate act of arrogance may be that, even though he has no background in food science, he still thinks himself smarter than the average consumer. Say what you will about Ralph Nader, but at least he was the real deal. Bogusky just seems to have found a new product to rebrand: himself.