Burger King wanted to promote a burger inspired by Asian flavors. It learned that chopsticks weren't the way to go.
The fast-food chain's video clip showed diners very awkwardly trying to eat its new Vietnamese Sweet Chilli Tendercrisp burgers with giant red chopsticks. It included a caption reading "Take your taste buds all the way to Ho Chi Minh City."
The ad, posted to the company's New Zealand Instagram account, sparked a social media backlash and complaints of cultural insensitivity. Burger King deleted the video and issued an apology.
Experts say the incident is just the latest example of a company missing the mark while trying to become more relevant to its customers. It also speaks to social media's increasing effectiveness in policing such missteps.
The ad gained attention after Maria Mo, a New Zealander of Korean descent, mocked Burger King in a viral Twitter thread, writing that "chopsticks r hilarious" and that "Orientalism is harmless funnnn."
Mo told The Washington Post that when she first saw the clip, she initially thought she was missing the point. She couldn't believe that anyone would run such an ad in 2019 or that it could be approved by a company as dominant as Burger King. But it's no surprise, Mo said, that people of color must contend with constant microaggressions.
In her tweets, Mo wrote of the importance to "say no" to every manifestation of racism, from "the kind that makes fun of different cultures, to the kind that shoots and murders those peacefully praying in their place of worship." Last month, a gunman killed 50 worshipers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
The ad played on widespread Asian stereotypes, "as though their thought process went, 'what's Asian? Chopsticks!'" Mo said. She noted that chopsticks are used by billions of people around the world, and that they wouldn't normally be used to eat a burger anyway. But even the burger missed a mark, Mo said, because sweet chili sauce is more common in Thai cuisine than Vietnamese. Plus, another one of Burger King's Japanese-branded chicken burgers was described as "tonkatsu," even though "tonkatsu" translates to fried pork.
"To me, it was just another portrayal of Asian culture that narrowed it down to a caricature," Mo said.
Many people who responded to her thread said that they, too, are constantly subjected to having their cultures "mocked, butchered, appropriated," she said. Others angrily told her that she was overreacting or didn't have a sense of humor. On Monday alone, she blocked more than 40 Twitter accounts.
"Just because you yourself may not notice or be able to see it, doesn't mean you can be a spokesperson for the rest of us that do," she said of the critics.
Other companies have come under similar scrutiny about perceived racial insensitivity. Last year, Dolce & Gabbana released an ad in China to promote a Shanghai runway show. Three short ads showed an Asian woman dressed in Dolce & Gabbana struggling to eat pizza, spaghetti and a cannoli with chopsticks. A male narrator, trying to tell the woman how to "properly" eat her food," says, "let's use these small stick-like things to eat our great pizza margherita." Dolce & Gabbana removed the videos from Chinese social media 24 hours after posting them, according to NPR.
In 2018, Heineken debuted an ad showing a bartender passing a bottle of the brand's light beer over to a white woman. The bottle slid past down the bar past three other black customers. The tagline: "Sometimes lighter is better." Heineken pulled the ad.
In 2017, Dove released a body wash ad that showed a black women removing her brown shirt, only to reveal a white woman in a light shirt underneath. The commercial was widely condemned as promoting racist tropes of black people who are cleaned until they become white. Dove also removed the ad.
Beth Egan, an advertising professor at Syracuse University, said brands used to adhere to stylebooks that plainly laid out "what the brand is, what the brand isn't, what it stands for and doesn't stand for," even down to color schemes used for logos. But particularly since the rise of social media, that message has become hard to control and reel in at all times. Companies are constantly trying to engage with customers on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, often in ways that step out of line with that core message and, in turn, lead to insensitive content.
Brands walk a delicate line between wanting to be relevant to subsets of customers - and intentionally targeting them online - while also learning that their ads will be perceived differently by everyone, Egan said. Ten years ago, a brand may have blasted out a single TV commercial intended for a large bloc of customers. And it could have done so without much risk of an online backlash.
But with social media, Egan said that "we're expecting brands to know something about us," and to understand how content can be viewed from so many different angles.
"As a brand, I'm trying to get into your personal conversation," Egan said. "As a consumer, I'm letting you in, and I'm expecting you to be a little more knowledgeable."