So many controversies, so little time.
Before I could even weigh in on the outrage over the Burger King spot that mixes a SpongeBob SquarePants giveaway, ostensibly for children, with the creepy King rapping about square-shaped booty, another BK spot, this one shown in the U.K. and Spain and promoting the chili-flavored “Texican Whopper” burger, has drawn fire for insulting Mexicans and defaming the Mexican flag. This latter transgression was serious enough to require a rare apology, as Burger King has announced it will “revise” the ad.
Obviously, the folks at Crispin Porter + Bogusky know that stirring up pop-culture trouble tends to add exponential amounts of free media to any client’s ad budget. Since this happens again and again with Burger King, it would seem the company actually has the stomach for this kind of controversy.
It’s a hit-and-miss proposition, though. I thought “Whopper Virgins” was culturally offensive but that both of these recent ads were funny. But what do I know. Years ago, I watched a roomful of Mexican ad people actually laugh at, and applaud, the “Yo quiero Taco Bell” campaign, which I thought they’d peg as stereotypical and racist.
The “Texican Whopper” spot, rather than being racist or flaggist, is simply a huge campy parody filled with ambiguously gay humor. The American cowboy, in his major set of chaps that he just can’t seem to quit, looks just as ridiculous as the small Mexican wrestler does in his red, white and green spandex. (It’s not like the little guy has the actual Mexican flag draped over his body — the colors and symbols are part of his flamboyant look as lucha libre fighter “El Cachito.”) Jack Black rocked a similar skin-tight tights scenario in Nacho Libre, which even involved a midget wrestler. Black’s big line: “I will miss you, little Chanchito.”
The BK setup offers equal-opportunity denigration. Cachito, who is small like Sancho Panza, advertises for a housemate — and the tall, skinny, Don Quixote-like cowboy shows up at the hacienda with his horse, and moves his saddle right in. “Brought together by destiny,” says the announcer, as the wrestler helps the cowboy open a pickle jar.
“People said it would never work,” we hear, as the cowboy helps his amigo clean the top of a window. It’s clearly a partnership: The cowboy signs the wrestler’s glossy photos and helps him stuff envelopes. Still in his chaps, the cowboy cleans the pool as Cachito swims in his cape. “Somehow, one plus one equals three,” the announcer tells us, but in this case, it equals an outraged letter to the media from the Mexican ambassador to Spain.
Meanwhile, here in the U.S, the whole SpongeBob/BK controversy has played out on TV. To promote a SpongeBob giveaway with the purchase of a value meal (you get a kid’s meal and a toy for an extra 99 cents), Crispin mashed “Baby Got Back,” rapper Sir Mix-a-Lot’s graphic ode to big rumps that was actually censored by MTV when it broke 17 years ago, with the beloved Nickleodeon yellow sponge character. And really, the number of mixed messages in it make my head spin.
First of all, in light of all the misogyny in the rest of hip-hop, “Baby Got Back,” though it features some brutal language and is the last word in objectification, can also be seen as a kind-hearted, anti-anorexia endorsement of the fuller figured female — the kind of body that Kim Kardashian, for better or worse, might not have a career without.
To give credit where credit is due, the BK lyrics are out-of-the-park clever, with lines like “When a sponge walks in, four corners in his pants, like he’s got phone-book implants, the crowd shouts!” Even better is the line from Sir Mix-a-Lot himself: “SpongeBob, I wanna get witcha, cause you’re making me richer.”
So, Sir Mix-a-Lot has gone from censorship to sellout in the course of a decade and a half. Speaking of selling out, I’m sure Nickleodeon, as guardian of the SpongeBob brand, had to approve the ad.
Indeed, SpongeBob’s eponymous show is just one in a long line of cartoons (particularly from Nickleodeon) filled with the kind of innuendo that make them appealing to kids of all ages, even the smart-ass teens who are the biggest customers of fast food. Hardly an engrossing portrait of marine life, it’s chock full of absurd references that go over younger viewers’ heads. One of the more basic jokes, though, is that unlike a sea sponge, SpongeBob is square, like a kitchen sponge.
Though the show has had numerous tie-ins with Burger King, and even one with Wendy’s, the weird part of the synergy is that the cartoon skewers life at a fast-food joint. SpongeBob works as a fry cook at the Krusty Krab; a disgusting competitor is called the Chum Bucket. Sandy Cheeks, which is pretty much a perfect porn name, is another friend of Bob’s. Have the family watchdog groups ever watched this show? There seem to be layers of disingenuousness all around.
Burger King’s official response to the SpongeBob complaints was: “This commercial is intended to show that even adults can have fun, laugh and be silly with entertainment genres — such as rap and pop-culture icons — that have become part of everyday life.”
What the spot mostly proves, and here’s the underlying uncomfortable truth, is that the line between child and adult in American culture is getting ever cloudier. Kids are growing up (and getting sexualized) faster, while adults yearn to stay arrested in kids’ culture. Thus a 9-year-old and 29-year-old probably have some similar tastes in music and clothing.
The part of the spot I don’t like comes at the very end, when Sir Mix-a-Lot himself appears and says, “Booty is booty.” He should have shut up and stuck to the part about SpongeBob making him richer, because that’s inarguable.