At first glance Burger King’s “Whopper Virgins” television and online advertising campaign might seem creative and whimsical, but as an indigenous person I find it deeply problematic. The campaign involves Burger King representatives providing traditional people in Greenland, Thailand and Romania with Burger King and McDonald’s hamburgers and asking them which they prefer.
The premise of the commercials is that only people completely unexposed to McDonald’s and Burger King’s advertising – and who in some cases have never heard of hamburgers – can offer unbiased opinions on which burger is best. I wonder, however, if such people can give informed consent to participating in an advertising campaign.
The advertisement is problematic for several reasons. First, the campaign describes traditional people in terms of what they lack. The people are described as isolated, but isolated in relation to what? All peoples are known to their neighboring cultures and isolated from more distant ones. Yet somehow a New Yorker isn’t considered isolated for not having relationships with or deep knowledge of Greenlanders, Thais or Romanians while people whose networks don’t include First World communities are deemed isolated.
In the commercials, the participants’ unfamiliarity with hamburgers is subtly mocked. For example, the people administering the taste tests don’t show the participants how to pick up hamburgers – they just let the camera linger contentedly on the awkward and “incorrect” attempts of the participants trying to eat an unusual food. Traditional peoples are deemed shockingly strange if they are unaware of hamburgers, while First World peoples aren’t required to know the existence of, much less the proper way to eat, mamaliga or Khao suai.
The Burger King commercials also echo colonial tropes. First World peoples have gifts to bestow on unenlightened traditional peoples, and these gifts are seen as significant even if they are cheap and unhealthy hamburgers. Never do these fast food missionaries stop to think about approaching these traditional peoples as equals, tasting their food and learning from their cultures. Ultimately the traditional peoples in the Burger King commercials are treated the same way those of us in Indian country often are – as living on the periphery of the only world that matters (the Westernized First World), as amusingly quaint, charmingly dressed and ultimately doomed.
The people are described as isolated, but isolated in relation to what?
As much as I take issue with the Whopper Virgins campaign, I find myself equally if not more rankled by the arguments of its critics. The general gist of their critiques seems to be that Burger King was callous to flippantly offer hamburgers to “poor and hungry villagers.” There is no evidence that any of the people in the commercials are poor or hungry. Several of them are healthily plump, none of them are gaunt, and almost all of them wear finely crafted clothing, but the assumption is that anyone who lives in an un-Westernized manner is by definition poor and hungry. To be un-colonized is seen as being under-developed as though anyone who doesn’t live as a First World person is in need.
When I see traditional Romanians, Greenlanders and Thais, I feel a sense of solidarity. As peoples who have experienced 500 years of colonialism, we in Indian country know the terrible consequences of cultural genocide and we have a responsibility to those who still retain much of their ways of being and are less familiar with colonialism, peoples whose cosmologies and ways of life are being mocked or menaced.
When I see people like those in the Burger King commercial, my impulse is neither to urge them to remain traditional nor to “develop” them into “modernity” but to defend their cultural autonomy. Traditional peoples worldwide are losing the right to decide what the future holds from them – whether Amazonian tribal nations are being pushed away from the rainforest by miners or Bushmen are being driven from their homeland by De Beers or Romanian peasants are struggling with laws restricting the roads their horse-drawn wagons can travel.
To be un-colonized is seen as being under-developed as though anyone who doesn’t live as a First World person is in need.
And one of the major reasons for traditional and indigenous peoples’ disempowerment is being portrayed as anachronisms whose ways of life are neither valid nor sustainable. The traditional peoples featured in this ad campaign may never have the opportunity to view or comment on it, but those of us who have long been fighting for sovereignty, dignity and cultural preservation need to stand up for traditional peoples worldwide – for we know all too well what happens when cultures are mocked, dismissed or forcibly destroyed.
Shannon Prince (Cherokee) is a senior at Dartmouth College. She is a President’s Scholar, Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow, and Senior Fellow.