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Burger King’s chopsticks ad is just the latest example of branding gone wrong

Burger King wanted to promote a burger inspired by Asian flavors. It learned chopsticks were not 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 also included a caption: “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 clip and issued an apology.

“The ad in question is insensitive and does not reflect our brand values regarding diversity and inclusion,” the company said. “We have asked our franchisee in New Zealand to remove the ad immediately.”

Experts say the incident is just the latest example of a company missing the mark in an attempt to become more relevant to its customers. It also speaks to social media’s increasing effectiveness in policing such missteps.

Maria Mo, a New Zealander of Korean descent, had mocked Burger King in a now-viral Twitter thread, writing, “chopsticks r hilarious” and “Orientalism is harmless funnnn."

She told The Washington Post that when she first saw the clip, she initially thought she was missing the point. She could not believe anyone would run such an ad in 2019 or that it could be approved by a company as dominant as Burger King.

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 chopsticks are used by billions of people around the world, and they would not 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, she noted, one of Burger King’s Japanese-branded chicken burgers was described as “tonkatsu,” which translates to fried pork.

“To me, it was just another portrayal of Asian culture that narrowed it down to a caricature,” Mo said.

She said many of the people who responded to her Twitter thread said they, too, are constantly having their cultures “mocked, butchered, appropriated.” Others angrily told her she was overreacting or did not 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.

Last year, Dolce & Gabbana released an ad in China to promote a Shanghai runway show. Three short clips 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.” The company shelved the clips 24 hours after posting them, according to NPR.

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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 three black customers. The tagline: “Sometimes lighter is better.” The company pulled the spot.

In 2017, Dove released a body wash ad that showed a black woman 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 pulled 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, 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.”

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.”