Whopper Virgins: Nanook Revisited?

Curator's Note

This faux documentary viral video ad campaign from Burger King reminds me of that infamous scene from Robert Flaherty's "Nanook of the North" when Nanook leans in to listen to a phonograph, then carefully examines and bites the record. Of course, like many of the other scenes in Flaherty’s film, this moment was contrived to recreate the spectacle of a more "authentic" Inuit culture for a more “modern” American audience. Nanook was no "virgin." He knew damn well what a record was and, in the film, the gag is played for laughs. In similar fashion, Burger King's romantic premise of an international potluck is just a set-up for the money shot: the goofy "other" in the funny outfit looking utterly confused by something we industrialized Westerners take for granted. (Note that the white guys behind the camera are never humiliated like that, never display any fear or naiveté when confronted with novel cuisine.)

But would the neocolonial adventure travelers targeted by this message really want a tacky fast food franchise to pop up smack-dab in the middle of a picturesque village? Surely this would violate the "purity" of ancient traditions so beloved by both Flaherty and the modern tourist collecting visual trophies to display to their friends back home. In an ironic twist, the cultural caché of such digital safaris seem to echo the very distribution logic which underpins the "Whopper Virgins" viral campaign: "Hey, guys, look what I found online!"

At first glace, this all struck me as just another ugly throw-back to the “human zoos” of World’s Fairs past. But could “Whopper Virgins” also be doing some good? For instance, what do you think of the "I'd like to buy a world a Coke" globalization ethos that swirls around this text? Like Nanook in its time, might this crass quasi-anthropological navel-gazing through the other also serve to help spark an affective response of identification with an utterly unfamiliar native culture? In other words, could there be some cross-cultural empathy tucked inside that greasy hamburger wrapper of commercialism?



There may be some spark of cross-cultural empathy buried in this commercial, but where it emerges for me, at least, is in wanting to scream "keep that garbage away from them!" every time I see the ad.  All I can think of is all of the statistics I've read -- and honestly, I don't even know if they're accurate -- about skyrocketing obesity rates and health problems in non-western cultures after the introduction of U.S. fast food franchises.  Perhaps I'm getting caught in the myth of the purity of native cultures.  Perhaps this is sparking some actual concern for the other.  But I'm certain that that hamburger is not going to do anyone any good, and in the end the ad winds up reaffirming my desire to stay as far away from the Whopper as I can, however much these new converts might prefer it to its competitors.

I hear you Kathleen. But what do you think might be the campaign's impact on Western audiences? According to Advertising Age, it has generated enough controversy and attention to be satirized/canonized by Saturday Night Live. High praise indeed and a PR coup to boot: 




As you can see, SNL just pushes the concept even further. But who or what is being mocked here? Burger King, indigenous cultures, poverty itself? Like Borat, this text makes me wonder if the Western audience is invited to laugh at the "other" people, with them, or both. In this case, the burger is the bridge--an ambassador, if you will, to negotiate the encounter. For good or ill.


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