Advertising, Documentaries, and Cultural “Exploitation”

Burger King has just released a new ad campaign that has the blogosphere in an uproar. The campaign revolves around a 7-minute documentary-style commercial, in which the documentarians seek out “Whopper Virgins,” people who (because of they live in isolated villages in Romania, Greenland and Thailand) have never eaten Western-style hamburgers, and ask them to participate in a taste-test pitting BK’s signature sandwich against a Big Mac. Some have suggested that the ad — sorry, I can’t resist the pun — is in bad taste. Others have called it downright exploitative.

See for yourself. Here’s the site: Burger King Whopper Virgins.

As note above, the blogosophere has taken offense. (Warning: thinly disguised bad words ahead!)

Feministing doesn’t pull punches, entitling their blog entry about the ad “F@ck you, Burger King”:

I know fast-food ads are not typically paragons of feminism or anti-racism, but this [ad is] so incredibly offensive.

The PunkAssBlog asks, rhetorically, “What the Bloody F@ck is Wrong With Burger King?”

This is easy exploitation of other people; the “poor savages” practically comes screaming off the add. (Don’t even have a word for “Burger”? WTF? I bet they have a word for “sandwich” and I also bet that they have plenty of words we don’t have in English). Additionally, Whoppers and Big Mac would probably make them sick; most countries on the planet are not used to the high fat, high sugar, high beef, high salt diets of Americans. So, they’re giving them food, but they’re going to probably be immediately sick afterwards.

Enzo, at a blog called admits that he has mixed feelings, but puts his moral qualms this way:

From a moral point of view, it feels totally outrageous to invade under-developed countries with drastically different cultures and try to change their eating habits. I find it kinda crazy to be spreading this ‘burger love’ in these remote lost areas, especially when nowadays burgers are the reason why so many people are so obese and unhealthy in this world.

Of course, the clever folks at BK aren’t exactly shocked. The ad was apparently designed to provoke. Check out this bit from Ad Age: Controversy Is Just What BK’s ‘Whopper Virgins’ Is After

The reaction was expected, even welcomed by the agency. “Advertising is designed to be talked about, and hopefully people notice it,” said Rob Reilly, co-executive creative director and partner at Crispin. “I’m not surprised that people are writing about [‘Whopper Virgins’], positive or negative, because that’s the design of how we approach things as an agency.”

He added: “We go into every project thinking: Is it an idea that the press — and not necessarily the advertising press — will write about? If it’s not, then maybe it’s not such a good idea.”

Brian Gies, VP-marketing impact at Burger King, emphasized that the company had undertaken a variety of initiatives to avoid cultural insensitivity, including using anthropologists and working with local governments. He said the company isn’t planning to apologize, much less take the campaign down, “because we haven’t done anything wrong.”

The company is right. I don’t see anything much wrong with the taste-test behind the ad. The criticisms are more smoke than fire: negative reactions not backed up, as far as I’ve seen, by reasoned criticism. And when (as implied by the profanity above) the wrong is supposedly obvious, well, we should pause to ask whether it really is.

For starters, charges of ‘exploitation’ are easier to toss around than to explain. No one was harmed. Personally, I wouldn’t eat either a Whopper or a Big Mac, but I have to admit that no one is going to be harmed by eating just one. No one was forced to do anything in the making of this ad, nor do I see any evidence of undue inducement. Another worry, I guess, might be that the people in the ad are, in some sense being “used” to sell product. “Used” in what sense? They’re certainly portrayed. But so are indigenous peoples in National Geographic documentaries (sure, sure, that’s for our education, but also mostly for our entertainment). Is it the fact that BK wants is featuring these people as part of an attempt to make money? That’s just another lame instance of the “filthy lucre” fallacy. Some have said that the ad makes use of cultural stereotypes. I’m not sure how real people can be stereotypes, in the pejorative sense, if they’re real people chosen precisely for their unique perspective.

I won’t claim that I couldn’t be persuaded that there’s something insensitive about the Whopper Virgin campaign, but critics are going to have to come up with something better than our beloved blogosphere has done so far.

Quick p.s.: Some people have suggested that the title of the ad is kinda tasteless and/or creepy. I agree on that point.
p.p.s. Was the costuming staged? Dunno. Even if so, if that means getting people to get their “Sunday best” out of the closet for the big event, I don’t see the harm, given that part of the point of the commercial is to conduct the taste test among people so radically different from us, culturally, that they’ll be naive (in the non judgmental sense) about BK vs McD. The clothes help establish that point.

4 comments so far

  1. Anonymous on

    I think this ad campaign is incredibly silly. A burger “virgin” who prefers a Wopper to a Big Mac isn’t saying much for the Wopper when you consider what that person might be eating on a regular basis. These people would surely prefer their regular fare over that processed food. That’s the commercial I want to see. “Would you rather eat this Wopper or this leaf cone filled with larva harvested from this rotting tree?” There would be a ad for you. Perhaps Burger King could then start larva franchises.

  2. Colleen Lyons on

    Burger King’s ads are repugnant and made more so by the defense issued by Misters Marketing & Creative. If these gurus intended to make one want to lose one’s lunch, then kudos are in order. They deserve a Whopper.

  3. Chris MacDonald on

    Colleen:I enjoyed the ad. You found it repugnant. It’s a tie. Unless, of course, one of us has a good argument to put forward.Calling something “repugnant” does little to clarify what’s wrong, here. That’s just a word. If I were BK, I’d happily ignore opinions not backed by explanations.Regards,Chris.

  4. Anonymous on

    I just watched the documentary and I didn´t found it tasteless at all. I´m from Mexico, I´ve done social work and it´s absolutelly normal that people have that kind of reactions. I bealive that what the critics rage about is their own counciense. Maybe it´s because burgers represent american culture to a big extent, and americans may have been a bit invasive to ather people´s cultures in the past that they actually feel the advertisment is perjudicial to the people on film. To that extent someone might analyse critically the video thinking about what was the intention of burger king. Never the less we can´t be sure about that.Ps. Congratulations on the blog, I work at a bussiness school down here and I find it really refreshing.Pps. I´m sorry if my grammar or spelling sucks, I´m not used to write in english.Diego

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