The campaign included a full-page ad from the Burger King Foundation, the company’s U.S.-based nonprofit arm, in the print edition of the New York Times. “Women belong in the kitchen” was bolded in a large font that took up much of the ad’s above-the-fold space.
“Fine dining kitchens, food truck kitchens, award-winning kitchens, casual dining kitchens, ghost kitchens, Burger King kitchens. If there’s a professional kitchen, women belong there,” the ad continued. “But can you guess who’s leading those kitchens these days? Exactly. Only 24% of chef positions in America are occupied by women. Want to talk head chefs? The number drops to fewer than 7%.”
A similarly sized display at the typical standby rate is estimated to cost $65,000, though the price can range depending on the specifics of the ad. The Times declined to disclose the cost.
The Burger King Foundation’s H.E.R. (Helping Equalize Restaurants) Scholarship will grant $25,000 apiece to two female employees. Workers must be employed by Burger King or a franchisee, have plans to enroll in an accredited two- or four-year culinary program or university in the United States during the 2022-23 academic year, have a high school diploma or GED, and demonstrate financial need and substantial work experience, according to the foundation’s website. The foundation will establish similar programs in the United Kingdom and Mexico, Burger King spokeswoman Adrianna Lauricella said in an email.
“We are committed to helping women break through a male-dominated culinary culture in the world’s fine dining restaurants — and sometimes that requires drawing attention to the problem we’re trying to help fix,” Lauricella said. “Our tweet in the UK today was designed to draw attention to the fact that only a small percentage of chefs and head chefs are women. It was our mistake to not include the full explanation in our initial tweet and have adjusted our activity moving forward because we’re sure that when people read the entirety of our commitment, they will share our belief in this important opportunity.”
But many people on social media took issue with the out-of-context tweet. KFC Gaming tweeted a meme with the caption: “The best time to delete this post was immediately after posting it. The second best time is now.”
Burger King UK initially rejected the idea. “Why would we delete a tweet that’s drawing attention to a huge lack of female representation in our industry, we thought you’d be on board with this as well?” it tweeted. “We’ve launched a scholarship to help give more of our female employees the chance to pursue a culinary career.”
When Niki Winters of Woodland, N.C., enrolled in culinary school in 2002, she says she knew to expect the male-dominated kitchens — a workplace environment she was no stranger to after serving in the Navy, working in the aviation field and studying IT.
Winters worked for catering companies, delis, restaurants and a naval air station galley. She loved the work, but said she experienced discrimination in each kitchen: unequal pay, pressure to outperform her male co-workers, sexual harassment and being denied promotions.
“My immediate reaction to the Burger King headline was, ‘Hell yeah, we belong in the kitchen,’ but I think that was colored by experience and knowledge that you just don’t see a lot of women in head chef positions, especially when you get to fine dining,” she said.
But she doesn’t expect the scholarship amount to make a huge dent, as the average cost of culinary school tuition starts at $30,000. She said she’d rather see larger employers hire more women and promote them into management and head chef positions.
“I’d especially like them to all commit to paying a living wage to their employees because that’s going to lift people up far more than a couple of scholarships,” she said.
This isn’t the first Burger King advertisement to spark controversy. In 2019, the company’s New Zealand Instagram account posted a video promoting its Vietnamese Sweet Chili Tendercrisp burgers by showing customers awkwardly trying to eat it with oversized red chopsticks with the caption, “Take your taste buds all the way to Ho Chi Minh City.” After social media users complained the ad was racist, Burger King deleted the video and apologized.
In 2018, Burger King’s Russia team tweeted an offer of $50,000 and a lifetime supply of Whoppers to “women who get pregnant from world football stars” so the country could inherit “the best football genes.” Burger King also deleted the tweet and apologized. A year earlier, the same division published an ad with the likeness of a 17-year-old woman who was allegedly raped and beaten at a party.
Tami Kim, an assistant professor of business administration at the University of Virginia, researched the strategy that brands use in advertisement — called identity appeals — to target consumers based on a specific identity. What she and her other Harvard Business School researchers found is that when brands use this strategy to target consumers with a marginalized identity and evoke a stereotype, the ad campaign is more likely to backfire.
In the case of Burger King, Kim said, even though the program that the brand was advertising was meant to promote female employees, it was unsuccessful because the message relied on the trope of women as domestic housewives. And based on her research, female consumers more often avoid brands that use this kind of advertising, even if the product or initiative being advertised would benefit them.
“Even if they didn’t intend to actually offend any woman out there and they have a really good program that they want to market, the damage is already done,” Kim said. “At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter what their intent was because it’s ultimately up to the consumers to decide.”