After posting a controversially sexist tweet on International Women’s Day, Burger King has been forced to apologise, promising to ‘do better next time’. Inevitably, the company has faced colossal backlash, with the ad being branded as a lazy and ‘tone-deaf’ grab for attention.
International Women’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women, raise issues regarding women’s rights and foster discussions about intersectional and inclusionary feminism. This year, the theme was #ChooseToChallenge. According to the official IWD site, ‘a challenged world is an alert world and from challenge comes change’.
The only change it has provoked is most likely one in the Burger King marketing team
However, one fast-food company took that slogan a little too literally, choosing to ‘challenge’ the internet with an incredibly misled advert. The only change it has provoked is most likely one in the Burger King marketing team.
On the 8th of March, Burger King posted a tweet stating that ‘women belong in the kitchen’. Obviously, this sexist remark, which undermines the historical struggle of women to establish roles outside of the domestic sphere, is not something you would expect a huge corporation to promote. Even ironically, on a day dedicated to tackling bias. Surely, this apparent PR disaster was not intentional?
Yet, the same statement was featured on a full-page print advertisement in The New York Times. Although, here, the problematic headline was followed up by text explaining the Burger King H.E.R (Helping Equalize Restaurants) scholarship.
Burger King’s aim of encouraging women to culinary careers was made clear.
This is an initiative which aims to tackle gender inequality in professional kitchens. The ad revealed that only 24% of chef positions in America are occupied by women and only 7% of head chef roles. Despite the inappropriate headline, Burger King’s aim of encouraging women to culinary careers was made clear. After the initial shock, the overall message is on the right lines.
However, when the ad was translated to Twitter, the approach completely backfired. This was due to ‘women belong in the kitchen’ being posted alone in an initial tweet. Thousands of people saw this provocative opener in isolation on IWD. In fact, the first tweet got fifteen times more retweets than the follow-up post which explained the ‘joke’. Unsurprisingly, it was misinterpreted as nothing more than an attempt to use a misogynistic trope for publicity, a form of ‘inverted trolling’.
Of course, Burger King had followed up this tweet, flipping expectations with the disclaimer ‘if they want to, of course’. This post explained their ‘mission to change the gender ratio the restaurant industry’ in a similar way to the print ad. But is this good enough?
Our current social media climate means that digital marketing needs to be provocative, edgy and shareable
Marketing teams are trying to find new and innovative ways to attract consumer attention. Our current social media climate means that digital marketing needs to be provocative, edgy and shareable. ‘Smart marketing’ campaigns are becoming more and more subversive. They are self-conscious, they mock the competition, and they play on the conventions of social media platforms to grab attention.
Burger King have a reputation for this style of marketing. For example, their mouldy Whopper ad poked fun at McDonalds after rumours circulated that a Big Mac will never decompose. Very witty.
Which is why it is so surprising how far off the mark the marketing team were on IWD. It just proves that there is a very fine line between being edgy and just being plain inappropriate. Criticism on twitter pointed out that the entire post (including the explanation) could have fitted into a single tweet.
The choice to post the sexist remark on its own was therefore a deliberate strategy to get attention. It was clickbait. That is why it is so problematic. That is why people are getting offended. Because a multi-million-dollar corporation thought that they needed to front a campaign on IWD with a misogynistic ‘joke’ in order to get views. It shows that they believed that a campaign for women’s rights would not get enough attention standing alone, even on a day centred on those discussions.
The narrative that our society ‘can no longer take a joke’, is fundamentally problematic as it enables casual sexism.
Burger King using this rhetoric makes calling out this behaviour in real life even harder. If comments like this are normalised by huge companies, then women are once again represented as unreasonable for criticism instances of sexism. The narrative that our society ‘can no longer take a joke’, is fundamentally problematic as it enables casual sexism. At least the online reaction this time around proves that some jokes are better left untold.
After being grilled with over 251,000 mentions before 12:30 and calls for a boycott, Burger King eventually issued a statement acknowledging that their ad had missed the mark. They said: ‘We hear you. We got our initial tweet wrong and we’re sorry. Our aim was to draw attention to the fact that only 20% of professional chefs in UK kitchens are women and to help change that by awarding culinary scholarships. We will do better next time.’
Burger King also promised that they would modify their future approach to avoid potential miscommunication.
They then later deleted the initial tweet, as its sentiment had fostered abusive comments in the thread. They explained: ‘We decided to delete the original tweet after our apology. It was brought to our attention that there were abusive comments in the thread and we don’t want to leave the space open for that.’ Burger King also promised that they would modify their future approach to avoid potential miscommunication.
Our ability to hold companies to account in this way demonstrates our collective power. Their platforms have so much influence, but their power depends on us. This tweet going down in flames is a definite win for women’s rights. It sets an example for companies across the globe to do better.
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