Burger King Ads Flame-Broiled in Controversy
BK Was Looking for “Burger Virgins” for Taste Test, Found Criticism From Food Aid Groups
By SHARYN ALFONSI, JIM BUNN and IMAEYEN IBANGA
Dec. 9, 2008—
Burger King’s quest to find a “whopper virgin” someone who has never tried their signature hamburger and then administer an on-the-spot comparative, taste test against its top competitor has some critics questioning the fast food giant’s new ad campaign.
“Here they are spending millions of dollars, going around the world trying to find hamburger illiterate people … and an agricultural organization can’t even raise 1/30 of the funds it needs in order to end hunger on the planet,” said Eric Holtz-Giminez, executive director of Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy in Oakland, Calif.
The Whopper Virgin Experiment
In the ads, the perennially No. 2 burger joint takes its Whopper to farmers in the Transylvania region of Romania as well as tribesman in Greenland and a remote area of Thailand with a film crew in tow to capture it all. The idea is apparently to find unfiltered and unbiased opinions on whether the Whopper or McDonald’s Big Mac is better.
“They’ve never seen such a foreign piece of food before,” a clip from the campaign says. “And they didn’t even quite know how to pick it up .”
In a video posted on the company’s Web site, people overseeing the test ask the villagers to sample a Whopper and a Big Mac, then declare a winner.
The problem, critics contend, is that Burger King doesn’t acknowledge the hunger that exists in some of the areas where the ads were filmed.
In Thailand, for instance, a good 30 percent of the people live in poverty and would never be able to afford a hamburger, Holtz-Giminez said.
The Company’s Response
But the fast food giant doesn’t see a problem with where they shot the ads.
“None of these communities are what they would describe or what we would describe as impoverished,” said Burger King global marketing president Russ Klein, who said that was something the company made sure of before filming began. “Food was bountiful in all of those communities.”
Klein said the company approached the project with “extreme care.”
“We worked with local officials, local authorities, worked in some cases with tribal leaders again to make sure that we treated the whole process with reverence and respect,” he said.
And while some people are unhappy with Burger King’s new commercial, the company has had past success with similar, non-traditional campaigns. The agency that created Whopper virgin ads for the company also made its popular Whopper Freakout advertisements. In those, hidden cameras showed consumers reactions when they were told the store no longer served Whoppers.
The result was a 20 percent sales boost for the King.
And at least one advertising executive, who was not involved in this campaign, said Burger King’s latest ad controversy could be a success. “I think this will be good only because [of] its controversy,” said Jerry Della Femina, CEO of advertising firm Jeary and Partners.
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