Carnivoral Knowledge

Crispin Porter + Bogusky might call its new “Whopper Virgins” Burger King campaign the “world’s purest taste test.” But really, what the agency has expertly concocted is the world’s most tasteless taste test.

You probably already know the story. “To find out about America’s favorite burger, we had to leave America,” says the copy at whoppervirgins.com. The site, and the culturally tone-deaf teaser spots released last week, feature documentary footage of a team trekking by snowshoe and helicopter to find remote populations — farmers in Transylvania, the Inuit in Greenland, the Hmong tribe of Southeast Asia — where the indigenous people are, curiously, shown wearing their native dress.

How isolated are they? The Hmong, we’re told, “don’t even have a word for hamburger.” The handpicked “virgins” are not only given their first bites of the mass-produced Whopper sandwich, but they are also asked to ignite their own burger wars by comparing it to McDonald’s Big Mac.

I’ve always maintained that if you really want the inside scoop on the best fast-food burger, you should ask a guy who speaks Hmong Gu Mba.

Really, what does this prove? If your palate is accustomed to local, non-processed, non-trans-fat-filled food, these Whoppers, tasty and addictive though they may be, would be mass-market weapons of intestinal destruction. It’s kind of cruel. Also, in proper taste testing of pre-made food, there’s so much complicated criteria — from “mouthfeel” to bun flavor — that this is like asking someone who’s never seen a moving image to be an Emmy judge.

But BK sees a certain purity in this madness. Russ Klein, president of global marketing strategy and innovation, says in the press release: “During a time when consumers are craving it most, honesty and transparency are the heart and soul of this campaign. By embarking on a voyage of this magnitude that held no guarantees and left us open to vulnerabilities, we took a leap of faith that our signature product would win people over at first bite.”

See, that’s where they get in trouble — claiming it’s transparent. Attention-getting, yes. Diabolically clever, uh-huh. But it’s advertising, and there’s nothing honest about it.

To begin with, taste tests are great as media magnets and marketing moves, but they’re notoriously unscientific as acts of research. I remember a guy who worked on the original Pepsi Challenge telling me that the “subjects,” stomping around a mall somewhere and given paper cups filled with dark fluids, most likely couldn’t taste the difference between a Pepsi and some lemon Pledge. It was all in the setup.

Second, it’s disingenuous. Burger King has already colonized the world with Whoppers — and carefully considered how to reach every inch of the globe. Yet this campaign pretends as though it hasn’t. (It’s even an established part of business for franchisees abroad to cater to local tastes — adding an egg and onions to Whoppers in Israel, for example, or offering beetroot instead of mayo in Australia, and on and on.)

But even more manipulative is that this taste test is presented as a “documentary.” That suggests some kind of journalistic endeavor that seeks to unmask hypocrisy or combat ignorance — neither of which this does. The teasers and early Web videos merely play up the “noble savages” angle — the virgins who must be Whopperized.

Stacy Peralta, who has made award-winning documentaries, from the skateboarding film Dogtown and Z-Boys to his latest, about gang strife in L.A., has done a brilliant job with the photography here. The National Geographic-caliber pictures of the countryside and the locals in their funny hats are gorgeous. The problem is that the obvious power and beauty of the shots just underscores the frivolity of the underlying strategy of spending millions of dollars in production to deliver burgers to indigenous peoples. (The Hmong are shown being transported to an actual BK restaurant, but how did they get the burgers to the remote locations in Greenland and Romania? We’re talking thousand-dollar burgers at the least.)

“Whopper Freakout” was honest and genius because it showed that the absence of the Whopper caused visceral outpourings of grief and loss among passionate customers. This is the opposite: It forces the burger on people who were innocent of its existence.

You do have to give the creative team props for figuring out a way to wrench the Whopper out if its usual context and see it in a fresh way.

My original thought was that these people would probably prefer schools and hospitals to prefab burgers. And in fact, BK has shown some sensitivity in this area. The company says it worked with local authorities after the shoots to make donations to the communities, including educational supplies and children’s toys to schools in Thailand and Greenland and funds toward the restoration of a 17th-century church in Romania.

And the post-teaser payoff spots will show delicious moments of humanity, with the locals eating and smiling. So, we see that it’s a small world after all.

But guess what? Every time, the virgin in question picks the Whopper! Maybe they should have assembled the testers on a mountaintop in their native garb to sing about it.