Burger King draws ire with ‘racist’ social media ad

A promo for a Vietnamese-inspired offering from its New Zealand faction depicted customers clumsily manipulating chopsticks. Online users were not amused. The chain has apologized.


In marketing, ill-conceived attempts at humor can bite you on the backside. Just ask Burger King.

The fast-food chain is the latest company to stray over the wavy line between lighthearted snark and cultural insensitivity. As this incident shows, even a misstep in a distant location can ripple globally.

Burger King New Zealand’s Instagram feed posted an ad featuring customers using cartoonish chopsticks to eat a Vietnamese-themed sandwich.

It was intended to amuse. Instead, the message was widely seen as offensive and lazy, illustrating the nebulous terrain that brand managers must navigate to avoid online backlash. The company quickly apologized, but the heat has persisted.

That was just part of the pushback.

The Guardian wrote:

The fast food chain faced a huge online backlash after an advert was posted to Burger King New Zealand’s Instagram depicting westerners attempting to eat the new “Vietnamese Sweet Chilli Tendercrisp Burger” with comically giant red chopsticks.

The advert, which appeared to feature no one Vietnamese, was captioned: “Take your taste buds all the way to Ho Chi Minh City.”

However, the post was later deleted after a post condemning the advert as offensive and culturally insensitive went viral, attracting over 2.7m views, and led to an outpouring of criticism that Burger King was making a mockery of chopsticks and Asian customs.

…“We have asked our franchisee in New Zealand to remove the ad immediately,” said Burger King in a statement on Monday night.

The food chain apologised, conceding the advert was “insensitive and does not reflect our brand values regarding diversity and inclusion.”

News outlets found plenty of angry quotes online, demonstrating the worldwide reach of social media. Burger King can claim that a franchisee was responsible for the ad and that the global brand holds different values, but branded video online speaks to the world, and consumers can be confused—and can even not care—about where an ad originated.

CNN reported:

Maria Mo, a Korean-New Zealander, described the ad as “Orientalism.”

“I couldn’t believe such blatantly ignorant ads are still happening in 2019,” she told CNN. “I could not believe that such a concept was approved for such a big, well-known company.”

Mo said that chopsticks had been used for centuries, so it seemed “foolish and insulting” to portray them as an awkward, oversized utensil.

“It’s as though their thought process went, ‘what’s Asian? Chopsticks!’ and just ran with it without giving a single thought to what kind of messages could be inferred by their customer base,” she added.

There’s nothing new about the chopsticks trope—nor backlash to it.

CNN continued:

The ad comes after fashion label Dolce & Gabbana last year ran a series of promotional videos featuring an Asian model struggling to eat Italian food with chopsticks.

The situation was exacerbated by derogatory remarks allegedly sent from co-founder Stefano Gabbana’s personal Instagram account, although Gabbana and the luxury brand claimed their accounts had been hacked.

The comments angered social media users, with the brand canceling a major show in Shanghai just hours before it was due to start.

Are these social media backlashes just overreaction from a vocal minority, as some suggest? Online derision depicted the ad’s critics as people who just can’t take a joke. However, for brands looking to reach global audiences, there isn’t much room for error.

Inc. wrote:

Some, I fear, will mutter about some people’s sensitivity to micro-aggressions these days.

On Twitter, some did, in less than polite tones.

But, as one Twitterer explained:

This ad just yelled ‘ching chong’ at me with its eyes pulled up and asked me if I eat dogs. This is what happens when no poc are on the creative team.

Isn’t it a little careless, some might feel, to be selling a supposedly Vietnamese delicacy while simultaneously insulting people from the region?

AdAge reported:

The misstep is potentially damaging given Burger King’s big growth plans in Asia, especially in China where it opened about 100 new restaurants last year to reach about 1,000 locations. In February, Restaurant Brands opened its first Tim Hortons cafe in China, and has said it intends to open more than 1,500 there over the next decade.

Companies are making more mistakes with ads as they take risks to reach consumers that are increasingly distracted and inundated with content, according to Brent McGoldrick, senior managing director of strategic communications for FTI consulting.

“When you flub something like this, you completely hurt your ability to drive any sort of interesting or positive viral dialogue, and now it becomes almost all negative,” he said.

Why are so many brands getting it wrong when it comes to threading the needle of cultural sensitivity and effective outreach? Some experts but the blame squarely on the shoulders of social media and how it has changed the marketing landscape.

The Washington Post reported:

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, might lead to insensitive content.

Brands walk a delicate line when trying to reach subsets of customers. Ten years ago, a company might have blasted out a single TV commercial intended for a large bloc of customers without much fear of backlash. But with social media, Egan said “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.”

Still another problem is the increased pressure for brands to be funny online.

The Washington Post continued:

Fast food brands often try weave humor into their ads, said Angeline Close Scheinbaum, an advertising expert at the University of Texas at Austin. Scheinbaum said many of her students point to social media posts from Wendy’s, which often poke fun at customers, as a classic example.

But humor is subjective and what is funny to one person might offend another, Scheinbaum said. That means brands have the responsibility not only to keep close tabs on its content, but to consider, “How can this be perceived from a social scale?”

“As an educator, I can speak to the fact that this is something that starts with education,” Scheinbaum said. “It doesn’t start at the agencies, and not just with the clients. It starts earlier than that.”

How would you advise brand managers to avoid a similar misstep, PR Daily readers?

(Image via)


PR Daily News Feed

Sign up to receive the latest articles from PR Daily directly in your inbox.