December 19, 2008

Whopper commercial mocks Natives

Prince:  The King and usAt first glance Burger King’s “Whopper Virgins” television and online advertising campaign might seem creative and whimsical, but as an indigenous person I find it deeply problematic. The campaign involves Burger King representatives providing traditional people in Greenland, Thailand and Romania with Burger King and McDonald’s hamburgers and asking them which they prefer.

The premise of the commercials is that only people completely unexposed to McDonald’s and Burger King’s advertising--and who in some cases have never heard of hamburgers--can offer unbiased opinions on which burger is best. I wonder, however, if such people can give informed consent to participating in an advertising campaign.

The advertisement is problematic for several reasons. First, the campaign describes traditional people in terms of what they lack. The people are described as isolated, but isolated in relation to what? All peoples are known to their neighboring cultures and isolated from more distant ones. Yet somehow a New Yorker isn’t considered isolated for not having relationships with or deep knowledge of Greenlanders, Thais or Romanians while people whose networks don’t include First World communities are deemed isolated.

In the commercials, the participants’ unfamiliarity with hamburgers is subtly mocked. For example, the people administering the taste tests don’t show the participants how to pick up hamburgers--they just let the camera linger contentedly on the awkward and “incorrect” attempts of the participants trying to eat an unusual food. Traditional peoples are deemed shockingly strange if they are unaware of hamburgers, while First World peoples aren’t required to know the existence of, much less the proper way to eat, mamaliga or Khao suai.

The Burger King commercials also echo colonial tropes. First World peoples have gifts to bestow on unenlightened traditional peoples, and these gifts are seen as significant even if they are cheap and unhealthy hamburgers. Never do these fast food missionaries stop to think about approaching these traditional peoples as equals, tasting their food and learning from their cultures. Ultimately the traditional peoples in the Burger King commercials are treated the same way those of us in Indian country often are--as living on the periphery of the only world that matters (the Westernized First World), as amusingly quaint, charmingly dressed and ultimately doomed.
Comment:  Needless to say, if you forced a group of Westerners to survive in a typical Greenland community, they'd look just as foolish.

For more on the subject, see Eskimos:  The Ultimate Aborigines and the Stereotype of the Month contest.


Anonymous said...

Even if I wanted a hamburger, neither McD's or BK would be my top choice. I'd head down to the local bar.

dmarks said...

I wouldn't, because I would be forced to smoke in any bar I can think of.

Jon said...

It's funny, because Eric Schlosser dedicated a chapter in Chew on This to how the junk food industry has caused an epidemic of tooth decay in the circumpolar region. So if nothing else, we know Eskimos have Coca-Cola.

Anonymous said...

blah blah blah blah blah

Sasha Birman said...

If I want a hamburger with meat in it, I certainly won't got to McD, or BK.

Anonymous said...

I'm still trying to determine how this commercial could possibly play on stereotypes when most Americans couldn't place any of these countries on a map and westerners in general know hardly anything about these cultures. Oh but wait: these are minorities and white people appear to be laughing at them. Clearly there must be racism and stereotyping involved and white people need to feel shame.