Dealing With Burger King’s Cultural Ignorance

Burger King recently released an advertisement for a “Vietnamese Sweet Chili Tendercrisp Burger.” The ad depicts Westerners attempting to eat the burger with a pair of oversized red chopsticks. After massive public backlash, Burger King immediately deleted the ad and rebranded the burger.

This presents us with an interesting case study. The ad is valuable in the sense that it invites discussion about Asian representation in media, specifically from an Orientalist perspective. It invites us to consider the strategic position and commitments of Burger King’s marketing department, and how the discourse created may or may not be indicative of a certain problematic mindset.

First and foremost, there should be a discussion about the actual content of the ad. The burger’s claim to the “Vietnamese” aspect of its name is a sweet chili sauce, topping an otherwise standard chicken burger. The burger’s description invites us to “take your taste buds all the way to Ho Chi Minh City.” Let’s get a few things straight: if you were to travel to Ho Chi Minh City, your taste buds expecting this particular burger, you might be sorely disappointed. The connection to actual Vietnamese culture is weak, if not nonexistent. The ad is misrepresentative and creates a caricature of Vietnamese culture. The ad invites presumably western perspectives to consume this burger, and it does so by drawing from the stereotype of mystical exoticism of Southeast Asia to attract this demographic.

This is fundamentally an act of Orientalism, as Edward Said defines it: “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” In attempting to sell this burger, Burger King reduces a culture to something as simple as sweet chili sauce and chopsticks, an inherently political form of defining, and therefore having authority over, Vietnam.

Despite this, I am not offended by the ad because of the intention behind it — to sell and, therefore, profit. The intent was not necessarily malicious. It wasn’t an active attempt to undermine Asian social perception. It’s not oppressive. It’s a clumsy, misguided attempt at advancing a purely capitalist agenda. I find it useful here to employ Hanlon’s Razor, which states, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” The ad just so happens to be indicative of a particularly uninformed worldview. While they do commit the sin of cultural simplification, the power relationship constructed doesn’t lend itself to immediate superiority. In other words, it isn’t saying that people who use chopsticks — Vietnamese people — are inferior; it just exaggerates their presence in typical advertisement fashion.

The condemnation of the ad has been equally disappointing, however. Disgruntled comedian Jenny Yang tweeted, “What the hell is wrong w white ppl,” in reference to the ad. This sort of response is fundamentally problematic because not only does it recreate the same violence it protests — cultural simplification — it does so maliciously, with the intent of disparaging a certain demographic. Yang generalizes one specific action to an entire race, reducing the immense complexity of such a race to her terms. This is a means of creating a power relationship, but the difference between her and Burger King is that she implies the inferiority of white people — the intent is to criticize. The answer to Burger King’s ignorance does not lie in a reciprocation and recreation of cultural ignorance.

So where does Burger King stand? They’ve since issued an apology and pulled the ad. Perhaps they should’ve known better. They are, after all, attempting to profit through cultural appeal. Therefore, they should be held to a higher standard — and I think the backlash on social media has certainly been effective. But we should be careful in reacting too emotionally, or too irrationally, because then we are no better. We don’t blame white people. We don’t trade an eye for an eye. It’s blind, misdirected anger. It’s collateral damage.

Dylan Tran is a first-year biology major. He can be reached at trandf@uci.edu.