Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Burger King’s Whopper Virgins Campaign: A Cultural Kind of Force-Feeding

A recent Burger King advertising campaign, “Whopper Virgins,” makes an effort to establish, once and for all, the winner of the ongoing Whopper vs. BigMac battle by taking both hamburgers to “remote” locations around the world and conducting taste tests with people who “don’t even have a word for burger.” Although the ads espouse reciprocal cultural exchange, this exchange is far from balanced. The ads target an explicitly American audience and the message is clear: sampling another culture may be entertaining but Western culture, as evidenced by the infinite pleasures of fast food, is a universally desirable commodity.

The full version of the Whopper Virgins advertisement takes the form of a seven minute long documentary style film and is available for viewing online. 1 The fast food chain, Burger King, sought out farmers in rural Romania, Thai villagers and residents of Greenland's icy tundra to compare its signature burger with arch rival McDonalds'. "What happens if you take Transylvanian farmers who have never eaten a burger and ask them to compare Whopper versus Big Mac in the world's purest taste test?" one of the adverts asks. "Will they prefer the Whopper? These are the Whopper Virgins."

Taglines of the campaign include captions such as: "Unbiased. Unbelievable. Undeniable."; “Real locations. Real burgers. Real virgins." ; and “No nostalgia. No preconceived notions. No kings or clowns.”3 Although, according to the company, the tests were carried out by independent third party testers, this assertion, whether true or false seems to be of little consequence. While some of the taste testers represented in the ads had “no preference” for either the Whopper or the BigMac and a few fancied the BigMac, luckily enough, the vast majority of participants seemed to favor the Whopper. One has to wonder just how representative the edited version of the taste test that appears on the advertisement actually is. Although none of the ads explicitly state that the Whopper achieved a higher approval rating than the BigMac, they leave little room for doubt of who the winner is.

The taste tests were conducted among people living close enough to the two hamburger purveyors that the food could be consumed within 15 minutes of its purchase. These are people, who according to one American contributor to the project, “really live outside of things.” But how far outside of “things” could these people really be if these they live within a 15 minute range of the two fast food giants? It seems like a more than a slight exaggeration to assert that these people would have absolutely no awareness of the standard fast food fare.

In the Whopper Virgins documentary, the reasoning given for seeking out these “Whopper Virgins” is two-part. The most apparent motive that the advertisements espouse is to conduct an “entirely unbiased” taste test, which is assumed to be impossible to achieve in the United States because the average American consumer has “been exposed to so much advertising.” However, the other justification given for introducing these people, who the filmmakers admit are “very difficult to find,” to the burger is slightly more unnerving. The documentary heralds the hamburger as a means of initiating a certain kind of cultural exchange. "They told us they want to experience other things in the world. They want to taste other foods see other people..." says one burger purveyor in the film, who later goes on to say “they are very gracious to us."

The campaign is presented as a documentary of the meeting of different cultures. "The hamburger is a culinary culture and it's actually an American phenomenon," says one of the filmmakers in the campaign video. And indeed the different reactions to the Whopper are somewhat entertaining. Many of the taste testers are depicted staring at the burgers with a look of absolute bewilderment. In the ads some of the research subjects are shown attempting to dissect the hamburgers, as if probing them for clues. They pick off vegetables, fold the hamburger buns, or otherwise devise strategies for managing the burger’s staggering girth.

Introducing the hamburger to a supposedly innocent palate qualifies a force-feeding in more than one sense. One critic likened the campaign to colonialism and declared it “embarrassing and emblematic of how ignorant Americans still seem to the rest of the world.”4 It is also notable that all of the “Whopper Virgins” depicted in the ads wear “traditional” garb, at least in so far as it might appear to the average American seated in front of the television set. The Americans who appear in the documentary are filmed enjoying local cuisine and culture. In a particular scene, one of the filmmakers wears a strange fluffy white coat, which he states takes a month to make and was “just handed” to him in apparent gratitude for his introduction of the hamburger. However, the participation in the local cultures is seemingly undertaken only as a novelty. Many, perhaps most, of these “Whopper Virgins” live in some state of poverty and have suffered greatly from colonialism and whatever came after it.

The Whopper Virgins campaign implies that the burger stands for something more than just food. It is offered as a sign of hope. The hamburger is presented as a means of changing people’s lives - apparently for the better - by exposing them to Western culture. The kind of cultural exchange that these advertisements depict indicates an obviously unequal relationship and also alludes to the separation between “us,” the modern and savvy American consumer and “them,” the exotic, primitive other. The labeling of these people as “Whopper Virgins” is a metaphor for the relationship. If "native" people are assigned the role of submissive acceptors of the culinary deflowering that takes place in the advertisements, what does that make us?

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