A fast-food giant sets off another ‘royal’ scandal

Burger King made headlines earlier this year when it introduced a new logo recalling its visual identity from the 1970s and ’80s. But an ad campaign that dropped on International Women’s Day gave the impression that the company’s attitudes towards gender equality are similarly stuck in the past.

For those who might have missed it, here’s a quick recap: On Monday, the fast-food giant ran an ad bearing the headline “Women belong in the kitchen” in support of the new Burger King Culinary Scholarship—which has an inarguably honourable objective of bringing more women into leadership positions in the male-dominated restaurant industry.

A newspaper ad bearing the headline featured accompanying copy, providing critical information that helped soften the headline’s jaw-dropping assertion—including the fact that only 24% of chef positions in the U.S. are filled by women, a number that drops to 7% when considering head chefs. However, a tweet promoting the initiative lacked critical context by including only the headline. Twitter then did what it does best: explode with anger.

Burger King continued to defend the ad even as the critical comments piled up, only to finally relent and pull it down on Monday afternoon. Responding to critics on a post on his personal LinkedIn page, Burger King’s global chief marketing officer, Fernando Machado, acknowledged that the campaign had “missed the mark,” which feels like a pretty cavalier dismissal of something so misguided.

Burger King is an acknowledged brand leader in the social space, but the decision to run the ad in this manner demonstrated a misunderstanding of how nuance gets stripped away on platforms like Twitter, and, perhaps more importantly, just how quickly—and easily—brands can lose control of their own narrative.

By the time Burger King posted subsequent tweets explaining the original message and the program it was supporting, the company was already being roasted—or should that be flame-grilled?—on Twitter, and the story was picked up by media outlets around the world.

The follow-up tweets outlining its intentions received a fraction of the attention of the original, leading to the impression, for some, that one of the world’s biggest companies had decided to perpetuate a tired old sexist trope on, of all occasions, a day celebrating women. It was, to use an analogy that seems fitting here, a whopper of a mistake.

While praising the intent of the ad, Machado said its message was ultimately lost in translation when it migrated to Twitter. “The intention was good and the action was good, the ad was not good,” he said.

More than a half-century ago, Volkswagen’s iconic “Lemon” ad showed the enormous power of the misdirect (which The Message‘s regular contributor Craig Redmond referred to just this week as “the most potent weapon in a creative team’s arsenal”), but the ability to pull it off with aplomb is compromised on a fast-moving platform like Twitter.

And while the campaign was unquestionably well-intentioned, people have been unambiguously forthright in their criticism of Burger King. Perhaps San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Soleil Ho put it best, writing on Twitter that “using misogynistic tropes to make a point about female empowerment is not the clever masterstroke you think it is.”

And in a blog post this week, Jeff Goldenberg, chief strategy officer for Toronto’s Abacus Agency, dismissed the campaign as “crap” and said it signals a need for the industry to raise its ethical standards. “If we can’t, we will be replaced by people who can and will,” he said.

While acknowledging that Burger King has been responsible for more positive social case studies than other brands, Goldenberg said that the campaign only added to a steady stream of hateful and misogynistic remarks that passes for commentary. “[Marketers] don’t need to contribute to this,” he wrote. “We can use our platform and our messaging power to inspire.”

Not surprisingly in the highly polarized world of 21st Century media, there are some who believe the resulting outcry is just an another example of “cancel culture” run amok. “Only the obtuse and those with their own agendas will intentionally misread it,” said one of the commenters on Machado’s LinkedIn post.

By Wednesday, an Austin-based agency called Hunt, Gather had created a website called Burger-Queen.com whose home page prominently features the problematic headline with a strikethrough of the words “in the kitchen” replaced by the phrase “…wherever the fuck they want.”

The site is also selling T-shirts bearing messages like “Have it her way,” “A woman’s place is anywhere she wants” and “Don’t kingsplain,” as well as a poster reading “Queens unite! Dethrone the king.” All of the proceeds are going to Girls Empowerment Network.

“[O]ur response was swift and passionate because our reaction to the tweet/ad was, too,” said Hunt, Gather’s partner and creative director Kathy Horn in an email to The Message. “It was click-bait gone horribly wrong, and on International Women’s Day, no less.”

The response to Burger-Queen.com, she said, has been “overwhelmingly positive, though we did LOL over a guy mansplaining how we shouldn’t swear. Or maybe kingsplaining.”

The fight continues.

Chris Powell