February 14, 2009

Whopper lust, part two

As promised, more on Whoppers. More on Burger King. Specifically, Burger King advertising.

In 1985, BK was in trouble, with Wendy's gaining fast-food market share thanks to the success of the "Where's the Beef?" campaign (which naturally, led to Walter Mondale's crushing victory in the 1984 presidential election). So the King tried something new. Watch this ad:

Several more ads followed. Then we finally got a look at Herb:
That's the guy playing Herb posing with one of the many cardboard cutouts of him in BKs nationwide. He was your garden-variety nerd. Not a lot of imagination here, despite the fact that the chain spent $40 million on advertising.

Clearly, consumers were confused—I was a dumb little kid, and even I knew it didn't make sense. This was the only guy in the country who's never had a Whopper? That couldn't be possible. I was an absolute culinary junkie, an acolyte at the altar of fast-food and manipulative advertising, and even I'd eaten at Burger King only a handful of times (we were more a McDonald's family). There had to a lot of people who simply never made it in. And would someone who at ate Burger King look like that? Wouldn't be more likely be a sandal-wearing granola vegetarian hippie? Or at least the Jainist kid in my social studies class?

The campaign flopped. $40 million down the tubes, despite the fact that Herb himself played guest timekeeper for the epic Roddy Piper v. Mr. T showdown at Wrestlemania 2.

So I've been reminded of Herb lately, witnessing Burger King's new campaign, "Whopper Virgins":

That's really all you need to see. This series of ads is pissing a lot of people off, and rightly so. First of all, "Whopper Virgins" is a horrible phrase—associating sex with Burger King is incredibly unappetizing, both culinarily and libidinously.

Second, yes, you could view this as further exploitation of the world's indigenous people (they're also covering Greenland Inuit and Hmong tribesman), but I think that misses the point. This is a stupid endeavor, from a marketing standpoint. Appetities and tastes are so dependent on cultural context that what a guy from middle-of-nowhere Greenland thinks about food is completely irrelvant to whether I might enjoy it or not. He could serve me the absolute greatest food made by the finest chef in his village, and I assure you I'd puke it up onto the ice within seconds (then again, I have the palate of a protozoan). Sure, it might be interesting to see the reaction of anyone who's never eaten a hamburger—something so elemental to me and my culture—just as I'm sure Mr. Inuit would get a kick out of watching me puke up his haute cuisine. But interesting isn't always persuasive, and it wouldn't do much to persuade me how I spend my hard-earned and carefully wasted fast-food dollar. When it comes to food, people are not the same wherever you go; we might as well be thousands of different species.

Clearly, putting a Whopper in the hands of a superhero works much better. BK should stick with that.

And no, I still haven't eaten the Whopper I've been craving. At this point, I'm holding out just to prove that I'm a man.