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SFS feels a bit outraged by Burger King's new "Whopper Virgins" advertising campaign ("documentary.") Though we may be a little bit behind the fast food news curve, we just caught wind of this today and wanted to make a statement.
This video is just a small (though at the same time quite excessive) example of the fast food industry's distorted thinking. By presenting a misleading "documentary" about the "cultural exchange" between Burger King and indigenous communities they are simply covering up for a ad campaign directed at competition with McDonalds (is this anything new?). Apparently the fast food hamburger is a staple of America's "cultural cuisine"?
As P Nok explains, Burger King is "taking advantage of others by using 'research' that is really just advertising, having consumers at home watch it and convince them that Burger King's food is 'good.' Also, by having Hmong people and others eat it - for the first time - they allow these communities to know about it and exploit indigenous peoples' lack of knowledge about foods outside of their communities. The producers knew what the responses were that they wanted, they got them and made the film. I don't take Thai food to the U.S. and have others eat it and then laugh at them. I want to use this video to educate village kids about the importance of local food and the intentions of fast food corporations." (call this the positive side of the film? educational use for our Kids Love Nature club)
P Tip also questions "where was the village headman in the process?" - in Thailand, before something like this would have happened, the village headman would definitely have had a say - "the headman probably got a lot of money (or what villagers would consider a lot of money) to allow Burger King to do this, so the community leaders are also at fault." Money is certainly a driving force, especially in Thailand, where the economy is feeling the effects of the global economic crisis in a very real way.
Burger King almost takes us into the postmodern realm of total irony and disconnect, until our conscience realizes how exploitative and offensive this advertising campaign really is. (Though given the irony in previous ad campaigns featuring "The Burger King" and "Whopper Freak Out", it's not surprising that this element seems to carry over into their "documentary.") Further, it's disappointing to see Stacy Peralta involved - an award winning director who is known for making genuine, serious documentaries like Dogtown and Z Boys and Riding Giants - where is his integrity?
Though sometimes its easy to think that we are moving away from colonialist (capitalist) fetishism and beginning to respect cultures in the Global South, Burger King feels the need to have people wear traditional clothing in their sterile "taste test" rooms while jabbing at the foreign, unsafe, industrial foods. Are we supposed to be impressed by Burger King? Am I supposed to want to go eat their industrial food?
After seeing Hmong communities in Northern Thailand in this ad, we forwarded the ad along to NGOs that we know who work in that region. Empower Foundation, which works with sex workers throughout Thailand on safe and fair standards in their industry and equal rights in society, responded:
"Comments after being viewed by group sex workers from various hill tribes and ethnicities.... We think they want to make us hill tribe people look stupid, but we see that we are very polite people...we know its rude to open our mouths wide enough to eat their hamburgers.... of course we are too polite to tell them their food tastes like our baby's shit...and even when they are so uncivilized to eat our food using spoons!! ...we did not laugh at them or tell them how "amazing" this was to us!! We also laugh to hear us speaking Thai and showing Thai culture like waiing ... not our culture at all! So after the millions of dollars they spent on this ...what did we get...a school? a road? a clinic? or just a WHOPPER BIG JOKE to tell the next generation! Don't worry ...we won't be able to afford their hamburgers for generations yet and anyway most of us are denied any identity documents and have no freedom of travel so we won't be turning up at a store near you soon!"
This is a very powerful response from some of Thailand's most marginalized people and we should be proud of their strength and humor in the face of such infuriating ignorance. Unfortunately what consumers don't see in the Burger King commercials are the real situations that these communities are in, the impacts of environmental destruction, tourism and unequal economic growth (Thailand has a very high rate of income inequality).
Burger King’s newest ad campaign, a pseudo-scientific documentary featuring the world's last “hamburger virgins” as they compare the taste of Big Macs to Whoppers, has drawn media fire—perhaps because the whole idea is so silly, embarrassingly extravagant, and blandly devious. For readers who haven't seen the ad, it features villagers in Northern Thailand, Greenland and Romania graciously receiving their first taste of that icon of American food—the hamburger.
Apparently, the intellectual authors of this tasteless taste test were unaware that they were going dumb in the midst of a global food crisis. While they spent millions of dollars happily tracking down people with no “hamburger awareness” the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has to go begging because they can only get one thirtieth of the money they need to rebuild the developing world’s shattered food systems. Though Burger King studiously avoided doing taste tests with poor villagers, hunger and poverty are very real in the countries they visited. Hunger is also a reality here in the United States where 36 million people are “food insecure” (that’s USDA-speak for “hungry”).
When we look behind the hamburger hype, what seems like good, clean, inter-cultural fun is neither good nor clean nor much fun. The fast food industry depends on giant polluting feedlots that consume 70% of the world's grain and are filled to bursting with animals strung-out on steroids and hormones. The lettuce and the tomatoes for much of the fast food industry are harvested by men and women working under what Representative Barney Frank has called “slave or near-slave labor.” In Florida, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has been campaigning for years for a 1-cent per pound increase in wages. Small wonder Burger King didn’t ask them to participate in the taste test—oh, that’s right, they are too hamburger literate. In fact, they could probably write volumes about fast food.
Whopper Virgins is not about friendly, exotic people dressed up in their traditional Sunday best as they experience the joy of scarfing down 360 calories of fat. It is about getting us to consume even more than the 270 lbs of meat we average a year as Americans. Is this the industry’s response to “Super-sized Me”? Why compete to promote the over-consumption of fast food when one in six American kids are already obese and type 2 diabetes is going up at a rate of 4.6% a year? The irony of this fast food fight is that no matter which burger comes out on top, the result is the same. When McWhopper wins—we lose.