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Photo by whatwhat. Feature photo by dbasulto.

Multinational corporations like Burger King are oftentimes the face of America and the ambassadors of its culture. How can we, as independent travelers, defuse this trend, especially when–as this latest ad campaign shows–it’s more desperate every year?

The ad wizards at Crispin Porter + Bogusky have crafted “Whopper Virgins,” a campaign so absurd that it’s difficult to take as anything but a farce.

In one smooth motion Burger King has called to mind the spectre of imperialism, demeaned entire ethnic groups, and reminded the rest of the world that, even though we elected Barack Obama, there are still plenty of reasons to hate–or at least laugh at– America.

The agency realized that Americans are so saturated with advertising that it’s impossible to get an unbiased opinion of fast food from them.

The only way to get an “entirely pure taste test,” they reasoned, is to ask people with no exposure to the Big Mac or Whopper which they prefer.

The people they chose were Hmong minorities in Thailand, the Inuit of Greenland, and rural Romanians.

The documentary opens with an awkward justification of the hamburger’s importance, the epic swell of a string orchestra and, most importantly, people in wacky clothing failing to eat a big pile of hamburger.

Photo by renaissance chambara

The first part is a straight up taste test, with participants flown in from their homes to taste the freshest McDonald’s and Burger King food possible. Most prefer the Whopper. Then, it’s on to the villages themselves. The crew brings along an authentic Burger King broiler, grills some burgers and films the natives enjoying them.

Burger King probably didn’t do much actual harm to these communities by feeding them crappy American food – in fact, they actually donated educational supplies and funded a church restoration. The issue is how this documentary is presented to its final audience – the English-speaking world and Americans in particular.

The team’s discussion about their subjects is littered with liberal clichés and fake cross-cultural tolerance. The participants are “very difficult people to find” who are “really off the grid,” people who “don’t have television, who don’t have access to, you know, restaurants and what not.”

They’re given taste tests while wearing traditional clothes — which, you may notice later, few are actually wearing in their hometowns. Throughout its eight minutes, the documentary drives home the point that they don’t even know how to eat a burger.

They are “Whopper Virgins,” to be deflowered for our amusement and Burger King’s bottom line.

Americans already have a skewed image of poverty, foreign cultures and the rest of the world, and Burger King’s orientalist nonsense isn’t helping. They’re playing to poisonous sentiments and making money off of reinforcing them, taking on a new White Man’s Burden and playing missionary for American culture to impress the clients back home.

It’s exoticism on par with Ota Benga, and something modern anthropologists, travelers and journalists have been trying to kill for decades.

For better or worse, companies like Burger King are the face of America and the ambassadors of its culture. They wield an extraordinary amount of influence over the perceptions of Americans in places like rural Thailand, Greenland and Romania, but also in the rest of the industrialized world.

Photo by Sister 72

Their power has gone far beyond the average corner restaurant, and as we all know from Spider Man, with great power comes great responsibility. The world is getting smaller and smaller, and in the coming decades we’re all going to be exposed to people who think nothing like us.

Burger King and its ilk will be the ultimate arbiters of intercultural exchange, foisting American culture on the world and the world’s culture on us. It should be their duty to make sure it’s done in a way that is graceful, respectful and productive – this ad campaign was none of those and is an egregious failure to live up to that duty.

I know that by writing about this I’m giving Burger King more publicity. I know that’s exactly why they made it. But if things like Matt Harding’s dancing videos and Vice Travel (both of which I’m a big fan of) are any indication, documentaries like this are the tip of the iceberg.

In an increasingly globalized world, it’s important to open a dialogue about the way the exotic is presented to those that don’t have the will or means to see it for themselves.

Perhaps I’m not the right person to talk about this, though.

Seng Vang, a Hmong man from Minnesota, wrote a letter to the ad agency responsible and he’s not happy about the way they’ve handled things. Burger King responded with a typically sanitized corporate letter, stating its commitment to authenticity, respect and good taste.

Because if there’s one thing Burger King knows, it’s good taste.

Author’s Note:

Short of armed revolution, not much is going to stop Burger King from advertising how it wishes. That doesn’t mean we should all give up though; there’s plenty to be done. Letters are an old standby, and you can write them to both the ad agency and Burger King itself.

Tell your friends how you feel about it – part of the reason this ad is so bad is that most people accept it without thinking (it’s not their fault, though!).

And, of course, don’t eat at Burger King.

COMMUNITY CONNECTION

Matador doesn’t shy away from calling companies to task for advertising or business practices of the Burger King Whopper Virgins ilk. We’ve taken on Exxon and Ecko, and we’ve also written extensively about how more informed consumer practices can influence companies to be more responsible.

What’s your opinion of the Whopper Virgins ad campaign? Share your thoughts below.

 

 

About The Author

Ross Tabak

Ross Tabak is a freelance writer and photographer based in Southeast Asia. He runs the adventure blog We're Lost and Everything is Dirty.

  • Lady Kibeth Nehema

    Companies in Industrialized Countries don't care about cause and effect just the product and will it make $$$. Overblown companies such as Wesfam (Burger King) , it's hard to make change but they have all the power to do as they wish… as far as Wopper Virgins… americans are going to continue thinking the way they think… my grandmother finds the world out side the border of the U.S. horrifiying… and I can talk untill the cows come home and the moon comes out about my travels and my friends travels… but then some idiots in India have to mess it up, or someting blows up in Bagdad, because that is all CNN puts on… you will never see smileing children in China, or people danceing in Greece… just things being blown up shot at…. ect ect… so Burger King is not the only thing to blame… at least for the way Americans see the rest of the world.

  • http://www.keepingpaceinjapan.com Turner

    I have to agree with your take – I'll be doing a write-up for Ethical Traveler next month, discussing what went into this campaign; if anyone reading is from Chang Mai and knows how they "recruited" these Whopper Virgins, send me an email.

  • http://rossleetabak.com ross lee tabak

    The first Burger King was opened in Miami by two Americans, so I'm not sure where you got that. Either way, I think the point still stands.

  • Sarah Menkedick

    To me it seems incredibly sad and ironic that Burger King is presenting the Whopper as the apex of civilization–introducing these "virgins", who according to Burger King's mythology live in some sort of primitive pre-modern state, to the fruits of the modern, glorious, civilized world. It goes to show how twisted America's own culture has become in the last fifty years–when the ultimate symbol of progress we're showing to the world is an ultra-processed burger made from corn-fed industrially-produced beef pumped full of antibiotics and subsidized up to its ears. Yikes.

  • http://www.collazoprojects.com Julie

    Regardless of whether BK is a UK company, the author's point is that the company–and, specifically, its homegrown ad campaign carried abroad–is poor business and poor social relations, and raises questions for the rest of us about how we spend our money and how we view–and treat– the "exotic" "other."

  • http://charlesfrench.com Chaz

    Um…. Burger King is a British import to the United States.

  • http://Travel-Writers-Exchange.com Rebecca

    From a marketing standpoint, it's a great advertisement. People are talking about it and giving Burger King free publicity. Who does not like free publicity? And — word of mouth is still a great marketing tactic to inform people about your product or service. Perhaps if we just ignored their commercial or focus our attention elsewhere, BK's controversial ad will fade.

    On the flip side, I would think that Burger King would need permission to enter these countries and film their ad. Who gave them permission to do so? Was it the government of the countries where they made the ad? How much did BK pay? Interesting…

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/DHarbecke DHarbecke

    "Whopper virgin" is an appropriate term, when you consider what BK's putting out. As a mayor of Independence, Missouri once said: "The only difference between rape and seduction is salesmanship."

    • http://www.keepingpaceinjapan.com Turner

      That must have made him popular

      • http://intensedebate.com/people/DHarbecke DHarbecke

        Coming from a politican, what it made him was surprisingly candid. It didn't make him the poster boy for tact, however.

    • Olivebeard

      Bwaaa-hahahahaahahahaaaa! (I don't do LOLz)

      I was simply shocked to find that this wasn't a joke…that they actually hunted down these virgins and did these setups.

      I'm waiting for the article that actually analyze the process used by the BK team–in all truth, if Burger King went out of its way to actually conduct this as a study in a non-biased way (e.g. introduce incredibly westernized food to people who otherwise might never know it), I think the data could teach us a few things about modern food production and its impact on a "virgin" system.

      I mean, really, BK isn't trying to sell BK to the inuit villagers…they're selling it to us, the jaded Western burger consumer. I don't think they're interested in destroying these cultures or even, really, thumbing a nose at their lifestyle.

  • http://www.davinellicson.com/ Davin Ellicson

    I am an American documentary photographer based in Bucharest, Romania right now and have been working on a book project about Europe's most traditional life which exists in northern Romania where part of the ad was shot. I am shocked. Just shameful. The villagers' whole lives revolve around organic farming and their traditions. There are few true chances for genuine adventure left in the world and it seems America just won't stop spread its vapid culture and industrialized food even to the far corners of the earth.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/TimPatterson Tim Patterson

      I'd be interested to hear more about your project, Davin, and will check out your website.

  • http://www.trailofants.com Ant

    These people would of had a choice whether to eat the Whopper, it's not like BK burst down the lane and force fed them. The participants would never get the chance to taste these things otherwise. I totally appreciate, and understand the viewpoints of the author and other commenters; but as travellers are we not constantly quizzed and questioned about our lifestyles in the West from the curious local people? I once gave a Chinese villager a nip of Johnny Walker, he thought it was disgusting but thanked me for hours for giving him the experience.

    If a documentary maker from some faraway land brought me food that I might never experience again, then I'd jump at the chance to tuck in – why not the same for these people? What exactly are Burger King guilty of? We live in a world that is constantly changing, that's a fact – so why should the populations of Thailand, Greenland and Romania be kept in the dark? "Excuse me Mr Romanian, avert your eyes and get back to your farms. Nothing to see here"

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/TimPatterson Tim Patterson

      Good points, Ant. I'm not a fan of the ad, but I don't think it's as black and white a case of corporate malfeasance as Ross does. More a sign of the times. Wonder if Whopper Virgins has an online marketing component? Off to Google…

      • http://intensedebate.com/people/DHarbecke DHarbecke

        Speaking of "black and white," if they put an African tribesman in front of that wholesome product, the NAACP would be livid about portraying Africans as naive and simple to push a product. But they didn't use anyone like that, did they? Only groups who are too marginalized to have a strong enough defense.

        The rest of the world is a cozy American plantation. But it's mainly their fault, because they're not hip enough to know they're being exploited. "See the stupid foreigner? He doesn't know how to eat a burger! What a riot! Buy our crap!"

      • http://www.intensedebate.com/people/DHarbecke DHarbecke

        Speaking of "black and white," if they put an African tribesman in front of that wholesome product, the NAACP would be livid about portraying Africans as naive and simple to push a product. But they didn't use anyone like that, did they? Only groups who are too marginalized to have a strong enough defense.

        The rest of the world is a cozy American plantation. But it's mainly their fault, because they're not hip enough to know they're being exploited. "See the stupid foreigner? He doesn't know how to eat a burger! What a riot! Buy our crap!"

        Q: If BK really respected these people, why were they dressed in traditional clothing that they'd never wear in their daily lives? A: To show them as being ignorant!

      • http://www.intensedebate.com/people/DHarbecke DHarbecke

        Speaking of "black and white," if they put an African tribesman in front of that wholesome product, the NAACP would be livid about portraying Africans as naive and simple to push a product. But they didn't use anyone like that, did they? Only groups who are too marginalized to have a strong enough defense.

        The rest of the world is a cozy American plantation. But it's mainly their fault, because they're not hip enough to know they're being exploited. "See the stupid foreigner? He doesn't know how to eat a burger! What a riot! Buy our crap!"

        Q: If BK really respected these people, why were they dressed in traditional clothing that they'd never wear in their daily lives? A: To show them as being ignorant.

        • http://www.davinellicson.com Davin Ellicson

          I have photographed in the Romanian village that was in the ad, and the elders do still wear the tiny 'clop' hats on a daily basis. Of course the women wear headscarves and skirts everyday . The woolen jackets are also worn especially on Sunday for church and at all winter holidays. But, yes, the villagers of this region are not wearing the full folk costume everyday anymore, but for any 'event'–such as tasting Whoppers(!)–they certainly still do.

          • http://intensedebate.com/people/DHarbecke DHarbecke

            This is true. According to my buddy who lives in Romania, the hats are specific to the northern part of the country. However, these clothes aren't indicative of an average Romanian citizen. If you put some guy in a tuxedo on TV and labeled him "an average American," it wouldn't be accurate.

            What's going on here is the same schtick as Borat: the real joke is on us, because most of TV Land doesn't know an average Romanian (or Hmong, etc.) from a bar of soap. However, it also involves steamrollering over a few of "unsophisticated" in the name of entertainment, and that's what's distasteful about this. It's just another case of putting someone in the televised zoo and throwing peanuts through the bars. Demeaning.

          • http://www.intensedebate.com/people/DHarbecke DHarbecke

            This is true. According to my buddy who lives in Romania, the hats are specific to the northern part of the country. However, these clothes aren't indicative of an average Romanian citizen. If you put some guy in a tuxedo on TV and labeled him "an average American," it wouldn't be accurate.

            What's going on here is the same schtick as Borat: the real joke is on us, because most of TV Land doesn't know an average Romanian (or Hmong, etc.) from a bar of soap. However, it also involves steamrollering over a few of "unsophisticated" in the name of entertainment, and that's what's distasteful about this. It's just another case of putting someone in the televised zoo so we can throw peanuts through the bars. Demeaning.

  • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/angelacorrias Angela

    Most of my family is from France, but I was born and brought up in from Italy, where I lived most part of my life and where I can (proudly, maybe) say I've seen many McDonalds close down. I have lived two years in Ireland and now I've been living for a year and a half in London. From a rather wide European point of view, I have the idea that mainly through this kind of ads, we get the wrong image of the US. I steadfastly criticise and often despise US foreign policy and its intervention all over the world since the end of WWII, but it saddens me to see that the worst aspects of corporate America are the ones that more easily spread all over the planet.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/TimPatterson Tim Patterson

    I'm not sure this sort of publicity is good. I mean, we all seem to agree that Burger King is an obnoxious corporation and their food tastes like crap. I had a Whopper in Hong Kong 2 weeks ago, my first in several years. It made me sick.

  • http://Travel-Writers-Exchange.com Rebecca

    I agree with Ant. Were these people force fed the Whopper?

    When I went back to Scotland in 2006, no one twisted my arm to try Haggis at the "Scottish Evening" I attended. I knew the ingredients in Haggis, but I tried it anyway because of the experience, and I wanted to know what it tasted like. It was quite tasty even though I knew that it was made from sheep's "pluck" (heart, liver, and lungs). Most people would "freak out" if they knew they ate heart, liver, and lungs from an animal. Does anyone watch Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern on The Travel Channel?

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/TimPatterson Tim Patterson

    Everyone should be free to try a Whopper, and know just how bad it tastes and how unhealthy it is.

  • http://freedomhaters.org tedlkow

    There’s a funny blog on freedomhaters.org on the Whopper Virgins commercial.

    It ties it into Noam Chomsky and how the indigenous people on the commercials will most likely be forced to move to big cities when the fast food chains move in, and have to work for Burger King for a tenth of what American’s make.

    Check it out here:

    http://freedomhaters.org/content/what-would-noam-

  • http://www.intensedebate.com/people/Justruss Justruss

    Yes, there may be some level of hubris here. Though I think is is becoming quite popular to characterize anything American as being exploitive of others. To a certain extent, I can agree, but not usually.

    I recall a recent article here regarding the growing popularity of the English language as being inappropriate as if there existed some imperialistic, linguistic conspiricy. I travel quite extensively. Just last week in Spain a taxi driver asked me to speak to her in English so she could practice. Depending on the circumstance, people are open to the idea of Americans and welcome the interaction. Traveling is not so one sided as to be benefit solely the traveler.

    I just spoke to my wife who was born in (and more recently emigrated to the Czech Republic from) Tashkent and asked her what she thought of the concept – she's never had a Whopper by the way. She thought it was a good idea.

    Though I haven't seen the commercial, it is not difficult for me to appreciate the idea that Burger King may have brought a little foreign culture to Americans by airing this commercial.

    Good idea.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/DHarbecke DHarbecke

    If these people are "Whopper Virgins," does that make me a burger slut? I think it does – and I like it MY way, baby…

    [Insert your own fast-food innuendos here]

  • http://www.davinellicson.com Davin Ellicson

    Justruss:

    I can see where you are coming from, but the ad involves the worst of American culture (unhealthy, cancer causing fast food) being brought to some of the most traditional people in the world. It is an extreme situation. Of course American has much to offer the world generally, but in this case Burger King is way out of line.

  • Becky

    "Burger King and its ilk will be the ultimate arbiters of intercultural exchange, foisting American culture on the world and the world’s culture on us. It should be their duty to make sure it’s done in a way that is graceful, respectful and productive." Why? Even if Burger King is prevalent or even iconic of globalization, it's not necessarily "the ultimate arbiter of intercultural exchange." Why should advertisements need to be "graceful, respectful and productive"? They're not Green Peace or anything, they're just trying to sell burgers. Everyone who sees that implicitly understands that as the motive. Sure some elementary associations are created by advertisements, but they're far too simple a scapegoat.

  • Becky

    also, i read both the letters from the Minnesotan Hmong community and Burger King. The Hmong community was angry that Burger King mentioned Chiang Mai, because Chiang Mai is a fairly large city that already has Burger Kings, where Hmong People are employed. It turned out to be a misunderstanding, because Chiang Mai was where the testing took place, but the test subjects were from a more remote area.

  • Justruss

    Thank God the Czechs aren't sending their food! I had a traditional Czech meal in Prague a few nights ago and thought about asking the waiter if he knew if the restaurant had a defibrillator as I could feel my coronary arteries closing with each unctuous bite. I'm confident I'll not sprout any tumors as result of the meal, though.

    Seriously, I don't totally disagree with anything written here except for the somewhat extreme tone.

    Perhaps I am not qualified to comment at all as I still haven't seen the ad. I'm in Saudi again and doubt I'll see it anytime soon.

    • http://nordichigh.blogspot.com/ Davin Ellicson

      Justruss:

      Well, see the video. I have actually lived with the Romanian peasants in the video (same village) and therefore it was really shocking to see what BK did.

  • Lyjobu

    Wow, just wow.

    It seems that most everyone commenting has missed the point.

    It’s a simple taste test. The Brits (BK is a UK co., the Celticly named McDonald’s is the American one) simply went to find some people w/o preconceived notions of how a burger ‘should’ taste. There is no commentary on these cultures in the ads. It is simply: which do you (as someone who’s had neither) prefer, A or B? It’s analogous to a nuoc mam company going to Kansas (or to make a better metaphor, Kent) to see whether they or the competition make a ‘better’ fish sauce to the uneducated palate.

    You’ll notice that BK wisely didn’t throw some ground beef on a backyard grill for a third option, as that would be A. preferable to either of those choices and B. more indicative of how Americans actually eat burgers a plurality of the time.

    Frankly (most of) the above comments are more indicative of ‘liberal white man’s burden guilt’ than they are a reflection on the ad campaign and/or its effects. No wonder the damn neo-cons were able to steal our country for 8 horrible years.

    ***Fair disclosure – both the Whopper and the Big Mac are disgusting to me due to the unidentifiable putrid sauces on them. To be perfectly honest, I DO probably prefer the McD double cheeseburger slightly (but statistically irrelevantly) to the BK double cheeseburger; or to paraphrase Freud, sometimes a greasy road trip meal is just a greasy road trip meal.

  • Justruss

    I am back in the States, have seen the ad, and do not understand the complaint.

    It’s a burger ad. Please, considering the company is not engaged in ageisim ((Where”s the beef?) nor is it exploiting the chosen test subjects,

    I understand you are personally connected to the Romaniain people featured in the ad, so your angst is understood.

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