December 17, 2008

The Death of Meaning Pt. 2: Whopper Virgins

From Burger King, the people who brought you the advert with the hidden camera footage of people freaking the fuck out when they couldn't get Whoppers, as if that was a good thing:

Calm folk who look (at first glance, I've only seen the ad once or twice) indigenous to the mountains of Peru are pulled into a septic beige room in front of a cheap video camera. Cheap furniture and bad camera angles re-enforce the verite motif of the commercial. The idea is that these folk, who have never had fast food burgers before (hence "Whopper Virgins"), make ideal judges for a fast food taste test. Of course, they choose the Whopper over the Big Mac.

Flawless logic, that. It's just like the last time I watched Throwdown with Bobby Flay, he was challenging this cake master in Brooklyn to a red velvet cake bake-off, and the judges they brought in were diabetic Eskimos in New York for a funeral. Or the time I watched Iron Chef Symon take on Chef Rubino in Iron Chef America's "Battle Rabbit", they brought in a bunch of vegans with the understanding that their fresh taste buds unsullied by animal flesh would be the best palate on which to judge rabbit dishes. It seems that Alton Brown was particularly graphic with his discussions of the various operations performed on the deceased coneys that night - sadist!

Beyond that absurdity, there's the blatant overtones of cultural imperialism: "Here, eat this, it's so much better than all that grain and grass you people eat every day! I mean, on the days you actually do eat, since all you poor people are starving all the time!" It's unbelievable how shameless the ad is - the "moderator" administering the "test" is less a disinterested social scientist than he is drug pusher. And, there is that whole "Whopper Virgin" consignment, which implies that, like a virgin experiencing sex for the first time, the juror/victim is entering a titillating world of pleasure and wonder with his/her first bite of Whopper.

When I first saw it, the image that popped into my mind was the pox-ridden blankets the US government gave the indigenous Americans. Indeed, that beige room, with its simulated distance from the perpetrators of the fraud, is a site of infection, and one imagines that the only way to keep the disease (be it simply fast food, or the whole of American culture) from infecting the juror/victim's culture is to cut out the damaged tissue, or remove the victim from his home.

Perhaps most the appalling thing about these commercials is the cold heart of cynicism which engenders them. We have already declared meaning dead; these hucksters introduce credulity as a replacement for meaning - "we have constructed situation x with internal logic y, and who better than us to know, since we are the ones on your TV?" The Burger King takes the destruction of meaning (the only rebellious act left to the masses) as license to divorce truth from meaning once and for all . . . "see, the room is beige, the camera work is crap, these people are wearing their native costumes, so obviously this is true, even if it is not real" . . .


If you are writing ads for a fast food joint, you obviously can't say "hey, we know you're a lazy bastard with an appetite and an absolute disinterest in your health, so you may as well stuff your pie hole here", even though that's more or less the clientele you are trying to cultivate. Most Americans are going to eat fast food once in a while, but try to avoid it as much as possible; so in order to come out on top you must reach that clientele that has fast food as their major dietary staple, and make those folk your die-hard customers. There isn't a lot of differentiation in the quality of food between fast food places (barring a few unique items, like the RALLY'S DOUBLE BARBECUE BACON CHEESEBURGER!), so the only way possible to separate your client from that mess is to promote the fetishization of his/her product.

Arby's takes the direct route in their latest commercial: a late-twenties looking guy is laying on his bed in a darkened suburban bedroom, enveloped in an air of giddy anticipation. From behind the bathroom door comes a female voice: "I'm only doing this because it's your birthday" . . . the reference here being sexual, as in the old saw about married guys getting sexual favors from their wives on their birthdays. Anyway, out of the bathroom pops the wife, a cute-in-a-fresh-faced-middle-American-way brunette, wearing a full Arby's uniform and carrying a tray with an Arby's meal to the bed. "Ta-da!" she says, and shoots her hip out almost imperceptibly. A lascivious smile spreads across his lips, he says "Whoa! Me likey!", and a Arby's logo hat springs, boner-like and complete with a "boing!" sound affect, over his head.

Here the confusion between food and sex is much more playful, especially since it doesn't have the subtext of cultural imperialism. The food/sex intertwining is amplified by the American male fetishization of female fast food workers: the woman in the ad is very girl-like and could easily pass for a teenage Arby's worker. A significant portion of the American male population worked at a fast food joint in their teens, and probably had a crush on very similar co-worker at the time. Here the sexual overtones are focused on lost youth and confused with the food on every level possible, making a case for the fetishization of Arby's. And finally, since the sexual overtones of the commercial are so blatant, they subject themselves to the scrutiny of the audience, thereby involving the audience in a decision process, as opposed to burying a Trojan Horse (subtext) in a unidirectional edict (as in the Burger King example above).

Not that Arby's is as pure as the driven snow, but the ad is more like a harmless slightly off-color joke, and less like a cynical attack on the sensibilities of the audience. I actually get a kick out of the ad. Still doesn't make me want to eat at Arby's, but at least it doesn't make me want to boycott them.


Anonymous said...

oh yeah, I'm thinkin' Arbys.

Anonymous said...

Behold "Flame", the Burger King cologne....

keep clicking for the payoff.