First Bite: Burger King’s Search for Purity

“The final paradox of the search for purity is that it is an attempt to force experience into logical categories of non-contradiction. But experience is not amenable and those who make the attempt find themselves led into contradiction.”
—Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger

An experiment in taste

No matter how far it travels, the burger is a decidedly and inescapably American culinary phenomenon, an iconic sign of our post-war consumer-capitalist times. Yet, according to last year’s Burger King ad campaign, our very familiarity with the hamburger—and our embeddedness in “burger culture”—has corrupted our visceral senses.

The American consumer, born and raised in a culture of fast food and its advertisements, has lost the ability to distinguish which burger tastes the best. Emanating from the pantheon of burger joints that sprawl the American town and country alike, billboards, jingles, and television commercials have infiltrated our taste buds and commandeered our seemingly innate human capacity to judge burger quality. These days, it’s more about the consumer’s loyalty to a brand name or an image—the intensity of which may be totally divorced from the quality of the given product.

Alas, Burger King tells us, this “burger culture,” while triumphantly and decidedly American, has sullied the consumer’s palate. But worry not, fast food fans. With the help of bad-boy advertising group Crispin Porter + Bogusky (CP+B), Burger King is out to prove once and for all that the Whopper trumps its greatest rival, the Big Mac, in “the world’s purest taste test.”

This is the Whopper Virgins campaign: “Unbiased. Unbelievable. Undeniable.”

Its premise: traveling to Romania, Thailand, and Greenland, BK’s crack team of “independent, third party” researchers seek out individuals who’ve never before eaten—let alone seen—a hamburger, asking these individuals to sample both the Whopper and the Big Mac and then to choose between the two. “If you want a real opinion about a burger,” quips the teaser, “ask someone who doesn’t even have a word for ‘burger.’”

Documentary maker and former skateboard savant Stacy Peralta signed on to document the experiment in a ten-minute-long filmic exposé on the global power of the Whopper, titled, accordingly, “Whopper Virgins.”

Critics of the campaign have been quick to point out the exploitative and questionable nature of the filmed experiment. To these folks, the Whopper Virgins film is an obvious addition to the list of flagrant misappropriations and exploitations of the world’s indigenous peoples. Nutritionally minded aid workers, conscious of an obesity epidemic that coincides with fast food consumption, were particularly offended.

“It’s outrageous,” Sharon Akabas of Columbia University’s Institute of Human Nutrition told the New York Daily News. “What’s next? Are we going to start taking guns out to some of these remote places and ask them which one they like better?”

Others were disturbed not so much by the questionable nutritional, social, and environmental practices that the fast food burger heralds, but by the ad’s insensitivity toward the abject poverty in the filming locations. “The ad’s not even acknowledging that there’s even hunger in any of these places,” objected Marilyn Borchardt, development director for Food First, also to the Daily News.

The bottom line is this: (a) Burger King peddles a problematic product, nutritionally, socially, and environmentally speaking, and (b) the so-called Virgins are marginalized people who, because of their particular place within a global economic structure, are typically devalued, being asked to add their two cents only because of their marginal positions. It’s pretty bad—and blatantly so.

Duncan Riley, a blogger at the UK’s Inquisitr, wrote, “It’s hard to place exactly where this begins on the level of wrongness.”

But this kind of immediate and guttural rejoinder—while my first reaction was the same—is reductive. Critics have shied away from a reading of the filmic ad itself to focus instead, almost exclusively, on the immediate unsavory-ness of its portrayal of the Virgins as exotic cultural specimens. Moving past this morally-charged juncture can help reveal the ad’s logic—specifically, how a distinctly consumer-capitalist notion of ‘purity’ is invoked and relied upon, and how it goes on uncontested.

This essay is a brief analysis of an imaginary cultural object—this very specific notion of purity—that is invoked for the purpose of manufacturing a commodity’s (the Whopper’s) essence.

Fostering this anthropological discussion requires that we view the Whopper Virgins film as a cultural artifact—a token expression of marketing as a consumer-capitalist cultural practice—and momentarily set aside obstinate objections to the ad’s insensitive premises; in so doing, however, we open a space to challenge these premises.

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz, in commenting on the “cultural function” of a Balinese cockfight, determined it might best be viewed as “a Balinese reading of Balinese experience.” In this vein, Whopper Virgins is best approached not only as a story that marketers tell their audience about other cultures (vis-à-vis their portrayal of the Virgins), but as a story they tell themselves about themselves—about society, about advertising’s place in it, and about its effect on the human psyche and on culture.

Analyzing the ad this way is not an easy task. Whopper Virgins in particular is characterized by a unique confluence of social-scientific and filmic realisms, methods and aesthetics that work to mystify their roots as cultural practices—the imprimatur of “transparency” shrouds the scaffolding.

On the one hand, there are the taste test’s claims to scientific authenticity: an independent researcher joins the team to enforce strict guidelines so as to isolate and account for all possible variables. Each participant, for example, must taste the two burgers in question within fifteen minutes of their cooking.

On the other hand, there’s the documentary aesthetic, which, according to the shared conventions of film as a medium, purports to present the non-fictional and un-mediated “reality” of the taste test event.

Both are naturalizing and elusive. Both make claims to a transcendent truth—social science through its meticulous and methodical categorization of social variables, and documentary film through its mechanical reproduction of reality.

My move is to demystify these seemingly self-evident foundations and “re-culturalize” their outcome—that is, to consider both the taste test and the realistic film as actively constructed artifacts of our own all-too-familiar consumer-capitalist culture.

In brief, the sense that this ad attempts to make is in question.

Tapping the pre-cultural

Burger King’s conviction to conduct “the world’s purest taste test,” while lauded by the advertising industry for its innovation, might best be understood as a logical next-step in what appears to be an industry-wide reflection on the state of marketing: its limits, its discontents, and its power.

Increasingly, advertising recognizes—and capitalizes on—the awareness that consumers have of the marketing machine, learning quickly how to incorporate this consciousness into an audio-visual jive. Many a television viewer has noted the increasingly “ironic” tone in advertising, where the contemporary consumer is in on the joke and commended for being too smart to fool. (“I don’t fall for that other company’s gimmicks. I buy X.”)

Branding, since at least the 1990s, has become a household idiom, courtesy primarily of the industry itself. In a rhetoric of images and sounds, advertising attempts to capture and render its own place in society and in culture, as well as its effects on the human psyche.  You see this in the slew of commercials that feature the activity of “marketing,” with its suit-and-tie-clad players, its charts and graphs, and its work at depicting the market.

What we’re seeing in such commercials is not just advertisers and their clients’ attempts to push a product onto an audience, but rather an intra-industry conversation on how to reckon a relationship with an increasingly media-savvy and consumer-conscious public. They sell products through self-aware and spoofed representations of the attempt to sell products. And it works.

The story of the “Pepsi Challenge,” and the field of “neuromarketing” that has blossomed in its wake, is particularly relevant here. It is exemplary of the narrative thread that runs within the world of marketing, and which the Whopper Virgins implicitly references.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, the Pepsi-Cola Company ran its famously campy campaign: a blind taste test between Pepsi and its rival, Coca-Cola, filmed and aired for advertising purposes.

At the time of its inception and of its debut, Pepsi’s marketers were confident that a blindfold was the best way to ensure for their participants scientific and objective judgment; at the very least, the blindfold was sufficient to convince an only semi-critical television audience of impartiality or purity of taste.

In general, Pepsi won. The problem was that no one ever purchases a soda with a blind-fold on; the brand name is always in front of you. Coke, with its apparently superior marketing campaigns, dominated sales despite Pepsi’s claims to taste test triumph.

In 2004, nearly two decades after Pepsi had retired its campaign, a number of scientists interested in the effects of marketing on brain activity followed this question up and published their results in Neuron magazine. The authors, who have since become the de facto forefathers of neuromarketing, sought to track the patterns of neural stimulation during a replication of the Pepsi Challenge test.

In addition to the Pepsi Challenge’s blind (“anonymous”) test, however, the scientists would also administer a “brand-cued” version. Participants, still monitored by fMRI equipment, would drink both brands with the knowledge of which drink corresponded to which brand.

The results are as follows: while during the anonymous test, Pepsi coaxed a response in the ventral putamen—an evolutionarily-ancient neurological center that responds highly to sugar—that was five times that of Coke, a vast majority of participants chose Coke during the brand-cued test. These results were exactly what you might expect given the sales discrepancies between the two brands.

What was striking, however, was the fact that the majority of “brain firing” for those folks who liked Coca-Cola more came from an entirely different part of the brain. When participants knew they were drinking Coke, their medial prefrontal cortex, a center thought to be associated with the “higher cognitive functions” such as thinking and judging, fired away. Coke stimulated the center for memory and judgment, while Pepsi, with its slightly higher sugar content, activated our lizard brain, our evolutionarily ancient sweet tooth.

Marketers responded positively to this type of study. “Without a doubt,” wrote one online advertising magazine, “the subjects were letting their experience of the Coke brand influence their preferences.” The study’s neurological readouts had made palpable what advertisers had known for decades—namely, that selling a product is all about marketing and that it always has been. ‘Quality of product’ pales in comparison to ‘quality of marketing.’ In the words of Don Draper: “You are the product; you feeling something. That’s what sells.”

Advertisers have always sold, not products, but an essence, a feeling—an activation of our neural center for memory and judgment. This study worked to prove scientifically “that branding goes far beyond images and memory recall,” deep into the realm of human desire and its behavioral correlates.

But with this news comes a disturbing fact: a truly “pure” and unconditioned response in a taste test is profoundly unattainable with any group so biased from years of advertising exposure. (Oh yeah! “Burger culture!”)

Here is a quote from the original Pepsi article published in Neuron magazine: “Cultural influences on our behavioral preferences for food and drink are now intertwined with the biological expediency that shaped the early version of the underlying preference mechanisms. In many cases, cultural influences dominate what we eat and drink.”

(Ask any nutritional anthropologist: “cultural influences” have always dominated what we eat and drink. The difference between a nutritional anthropologist saying this and, say, a neuroscientist working for a marketing firm, is that the latter has a devoutly reductionist take on the extremely complex interrelations of culture and biology.)

“Cultural influences” (i.e., marketing) are understood by marketing’s scientists to work just like any other independent variable in a blind taste test. Like height, weight, age, sex, ethnicity, race, etc., etc., ad nauseam, our burger culture can be—to put it bluntly—accounted for by marketers.

Whopper Virgins, “the world’s purest taste test,” seeks to do just that: create the ultimate control group by eliminating the impurities borne of burger culture, seeking out those corners of the globe as yet unspoiled by the excesses of consumerism.

Reflexivity and reality

With a radical nudge from advertisers CP+B—the marketing machine responsible for several of BK’s new marketing campaigns including “Subservient Chicken” and the “Whopper Freakout” experiment—Burger King chose to completely reverse its marketing strategy. The once fashionable “Have it your way” slogan, while still mined for its association with the brand (Whopper Virgins is “A Worldwide Have It Your Way Production”), has gone the way of the buffalo; in fact, the Virgins campaign preaches anything but the old consumer-is-always-right mantra.

The consumer, whose decision-making faculty is so compromised by the now-empirically-measurable effects of marketing on behavior, can’t possibly know what he or she wants anymore. As consumers, the marketers tell us, we are steeped in burger culture, drowning in the discontents of a media-saturated and consumer-capitalist world.

The film’s crew enjoys narrating this market-fresh assertion for the audience.

“You can never really get an entirely pure taste test from a group of Americans,” says James, the art director, “because they’ve been exposed to so much advertising—uh, burger culture, those kinds of things—for such a long time.”

Likewise, Stacy Peralta, the film’s director, makes sure to interject with a summation of the experiment’s design. As he narrates, a computer-generated image of a spinning globe overtakes the frame: “We’re gonna go all around the world [globe stops on Thailand] and find people that are really off the grid [globe spins; Romania], who perhaps don’t have televisions, who don’t have access to—you know, restaurants, and what not—who really live outside of things [Greenland]. And you’re going to see how they feel about a taste test between the Whopper and the Big Mac.”

Unhindered by the weight of marketing strategies, television commercials, billboards, Internet campaigns, etc., the Virgins can judge from taste alone which burger they prefer—which sandwich fits their individual consumer needs better.

But in so portraying the Virgins as an emblem of purity, the filmic advertisement is forced to acknowledge the farcical, albeit forceful, nature of those very marketing strategies, television commercials, billboards, Internet campaigns, etc, that dominate our ‘behavioral preferences.’

If purity in taste can only be found “off the grid,” then the grid is itself impure, tainted by artifice.

Of course, there’s more than a bit of irony here. Whopper Virgins, as an advertisement and thus as a token of burger culture, teaches us about the power that advertising and consumer-capitalist culture holds over us. This is the paradoxical and foundational truth upon which Whopper Virgins is built: by illustrating for the audience the artifice borne of all advertising, this meta-advertisement works to rid itself of its own impurity.

This representational uncertainty relates to what anthropologist Michael Taussig sees as the distinctive and problematic power-complex of all mimetic practices, the act of representing reality. “Once the mimetic has sprung into being,” he writes, “a terrifically ambiguous power is established; there is born the power to represent the world, yet that same power is a power to falsify, mask, and pose.”

Whopper Virgins, through its hyper-mimesis, tries to reconcile the ambiguities of this power to construct its own reality, its own purity. As an advertisement, it looks to the uncertain and artificial nature of advertising (its impurities) as a source of reflexive self-critique in order to salvage some semblance of truth.

It’s as if Burger King were laying all of its cards out on the table, ready to be scrutinized for its true testimony to its own participation in a powerful falsity.

Truth, artifice, and reality are thus bound together, and make little sense without each other. For far from discrediting its claims to truth, the film’s acknowledgement of its own artificial and impure qualities actually legitimizes and buttresses its claim to a new reality, one that captures and renders a certain purity behind the façade of burger culture.

With this reflexive move, Burger King redefines the Whopper’s essence. ‘This burger, ladies and gentlemen, is the real deal, not the smoke and mirrors of the Big Mac.’

What is important to grasp, however, is that this claim hinges on the (selectively asserted) assumption of advertising’s self-proclaimed and all-too-convenient impurity: a lack of exposure to advertising’s discontents is what makes the Virgins pure, yet those impurities of marketing’s influence fail to undermine the strength of the ad’s argument, itself a product of burger culture. A terrifically ambiguous power indeed.

But it doesn’t end there. The abovementioned reflexive self-acknowledgement and critique so characteristic of the taste test’s bizarre rationale (advertising confronting the ambiguous nature of advertising) extends all the way down to the video’s directorial rhyme and reason—the filmic aesthetic.

Although both Burger King and the press were quick to label the video as some iteration of “documentary,” it’s clearly distinct from the conventions typical of the documentary genre. Even a term like “documercial” doesn’t quite capture the Whopper Virgins’ filmic feel or televisual aesthetic; there’s something just a little too familiar and cushy to its flavor than “documercial” is able to render.

To be frank, the thing reeks of Reality TV—and here’s why: despite Peralta’s nonchalant quip that “[Whopper Virgins] is a big experiment; we’re documenting it, and we’ll see what happens,” the video is not merely the documentation of an event. Instead, like most Reality TV, the event, the taste test, is self-consciously and reflexively entangled with its documentation. “Whopper Virgins” is as much about the film crew’s journey and adventures whilst making the film as it is about the Whopper’s triumph during the taste test.

Indeed, the taste test itself comprises merely a fraction of the whole video; most of the final product is reflection on the event: affective testimonial accounts from those participating in the “research” and its documentation. This is why Peralta and his crew are so prominently featured in the short film.

By acknowledging—purposefully, albeit tacitly—that the video was, in fact, filmed, a constructed, mediated, cultural object, the audience is forced to confront the manufactured, artificial, and even contrived nature of the televisual medium itself.

There’s no denying that the film is just that: a film. The crew was there, taping, mediating, narrating; why try to disguise it as anything else?

This is an aesthetic that abides by a simple rule: to mask the process of media-making is to distance the viewer from the represented reality. The cards are again laid out before us.

“Exposing yourself”—exposing the film’s producers as active agents within the film; exposing the camera equipment and all the mechanical snags hit along the way; bringing ‘behind the scenes’ to the fore in a profanely and calculated Brechtian move—is a common convention, a realist-aesthetic apparatus that so often goes unobserved in much Reality Tv.

Reality TV’s reflexivity emerged as an aesthetic critique of its didactic predecessor, the documentary. Rather than the authoritative voice of expert narration characteristic of the documentary, Reality TV’s real-ness is confirmed by spontaneity and emotional immediacy, indexed by the accidental cameraman or key grip in the shot, or by affective testimonials from individuals present at the filming of the event.

The Whopper Virgins film is populated with brief interview segments with individuals like Stacy Peralta or “Dave, Art Director,” and “James, Art Director.” James speaks as his colleagues unload film equipment from the trunk of a car in a parking lot—clearly a spur-of-the-moment reflection by an active agent of the film’s production. Or, testifying to the reality of the moment, Peralta reminisces, “It was really interesting—we were able to see these people’s first bite of a hamburger,” with all the paternalistic (and patronizing) affect that is to be expected of an American feeding hamburgers to the world’s poor.

What is reality? Reality is full of accidents and blemishes. So is Reality TV. The most triumphant, dramatic, and indeed cinematic moments of the film come as snags in the making of the film.

After realizing an incompatibility between America’s and Greenland’s propane adaptors, the crew works in double time to right the error; or, better, a helicopter arrives in the tundra to deliver an authentic BK broiler to cook burgers for the Virgins of the world.

These moments—which, in fact, have nothing to do with negating the effects of burger culture and procuring an empirical judgment on the Whopper’s quality—have everything to do with purifying and limiting the powerful filmic apparatus, which, like advertising, holds a certain cultural sway over our senses and disguises the dangerous uncertainties of mimesis, the power to (re)produce reality and to falsify.

Fast food purity and danger

There’s a certain evil-cum-artistic genius to this graceful parallel between Reality TV’s reflexive aesthetic apparatus and the cultural logic of late capitalist marketing.

As the powerful artifice and artificial power of both marketing and televisual media are exposed in an act of purification, the viewer is hit with a duplicitous paradox—a ritual representational act, a highly mediated peeling away of the layers of mediation that come between the viewer/consumer and an unattainable purity.

All this, at a time when it’s increasingly modish in the food industry to deal in “purity.”

For instance, Chipotle, a rapidly growing Tex-Mex chain that was once not-so-silently owned by McDonalds, has sponsored free screenings of Food, Inc., a documentary working to render the perils of the food industry, its under-exposed nutritional, social, and environmental consequences. With this, Chipotle sought to align itself with the film’s ideological stance, hoping to convince the audience that their corporation operates differently, with a conscious effort to maximize the purity of their product.

What is so ironic about the Whopper Virgins, then, is its ability to totally skirt the issue, redirecting purity away from, say, ingredients or agricultural practices, to focus instead on the impurities of burger culture by challenging McDonalds using the terms laid out during the Cola Wars.

The essence of purity indexed so prominently in Whopper Virgins is not at all related to the beef, the bun, or the condiments, but is an unattainable state of being, a fairy tale world untouched by the unique profanity of advertising and global consumer capitalism.

The Whopper Virgins, with zero buying power, are the diplomats of this imagined purity.

They are the “noble savage,” the thought-object of 18th century philosophers and the control group for 21st century marketing “experiments,” supposedly equal in human worth but unburdened by the sins of Western Civilization (burger culture) and the unholy conflation of truth and artifice.

What is this purity? It is the state of being in which reductionist claims about both biology and culture subconsciously influence you to choose Burger King over McDonald’s when you’re pulling off the interstate to pee.

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