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December 17, 2008


Deconstructing Dinner



How Burger King's latest marketing strategy is broiling a lot of controversy.


Jon Steinman


Perhaps you've already heard the buzz. In late November, Burger King (BK) launched a marketing gimmick called Whopper Virgins. The campaign has since been waged via the Internet as well as a series of television ads directing people to the Whopper Virgins web site.


Whopper Virgins is the product of American PR firm Crispin-Porter and Bogusky. The company employed a film-crew to travel the globe and introduce BK's famous Whopper hamburger to people in some of the world's most far-flung places. Inuit of Greenland, Transylvanian farmers, and the Hmong of Thailand were among those targeted for the experiment.


It was hoped that Americans would be fascinated to see the reactions of such 'foreign' people tasting the homogenous staple of American fast-food - the hamburger.


Participants were also engaged in a taste-test to compare McDonald's Big Mac with the BK Whopper.


While it was likely not the intention of BK or its hired PR firm, the Whopper Virgins campaign has revealed the sheer ignorance of Western culture, and has managed to proudly celebrate the cultural imperialism that North Americans have become so famous for.


Located on the campaign's web site is an approximately seven minute video that showcases the film-crew's Whopper expedition.


In the early stages of the film, a member of the crew is recorded expressing his excitement at the de-virginizing of the Hmong people: "They've never seen such a foreign piece of food before," he proclaims. "They didn't know how to pick it up."


Maybe I'm being picky here, but of course the Hmong of Thailand have never seen a 'foreign' piece of food before, that's what makes it 'foreign'!


I'd be curious to observe whether or not this member of the film crew would be equally amazed if he himself were presented with a bowl of salted crickets (insects being a staple of many cultures) only to then realize he does not know how to use the chopsticks placed beside the bowl. Hmm, that could make a good film!


The Whopper Virgins film continues with an animated map of the world, and a diagram of where the film crew (and Whoppers) will be travelling to. The same person who was shocked to see people who had never seen a hamburger is heard narrating in naïve wonder: "You're going to go all around the world and find people that are really off the grid, who perhaps don't have televisions, who don't have access to restaurants and what-not, who really live outside of things."


'Outside of things'?


And what would the Hmong, Inuit and Transylvanians think of these half-witted Americans trucking Whoppers around for the purpose of producing a marketing gimmick?


I seriously question just who of those represented in the film are 'living outside of things'.


Of course, the spreading of their brand around the world has long been the objective of BK.


BK restaurants number 11,900 and are dispersed throughout 69 countries, with 34% of the outlets outside of the United States. So in the case of Whopper Virgins, BK is simply celebrating the global influence the company has exerted thus far.


However, I consider it a fair assumption that while North American's may well be aware of the downsides to cultural imperialism, our continued support and participation in this long-standing phenomenon does not seem to be abating. Perhaps the widespread viewing of the Whopper Virgins film will succeed in showcasing exactly how our Western culture can so easily pollute and patronize other cultures.


As one case in point, when viewers of the film meet the Inuit of Greenland, an older member of the community is seen unwrapping his first-ever Whopper. The wrapper is swiftly discarded in what was likely the first piece of non-reusable food waste that he's ever been responsible for.


Many critics of Whopper Virgins have suggested that the gimmick was purposefully designed to create controversy.


I would disagree.


The orchestral music played throughout the duration of the film is suggestive that what the film crew and staff are doing is a noble cause and a sign of American superiority. The music is so epic in tone, that in many respects, the handing over of Whoppers to 'foreigners' evokes an image that introducing a Whopper to a Whopper Virgin is akin to a gift from God.


In the end, I propose that Whopper Virgins ranks as one of the greatest displays of unintelligence ever seen in the world of marketing, and not because of the content of the film, but because of the name of the campaign.


'Virgin' is often used to depict purity and something uncorrupted. By choosing the title 'Whopper Virgins', BK has indirectly admitted that the introduction of the Whopper to people who have never tried one, amounts to corrupting what was once pure.


I for one agree with Burger King.





Whopper Virgins:


Deconstructing Dinner episode featuring Whopper Virgins:


Deconstructing Dinner's re-worked audio version of Whopper Virgins:




Jon Steinman is the Producer/Host of Deconstructing Dinner a weekly one-hour radio show and Podcast based in Nelson, British Columbia, Canada and heard on radio stations around the world.


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