What kind of message appeals to both the intellectual progressive and the intransigent conservative with equal zeal?
Getting both self-serious parties to buy such a concept is a precarious prospect—one that even the most experienced politicians have tapped a formula to exploit. It is only fitting, then, that the answer comes in the form of America’s most important export: fast food.
The Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s “Most American Burger” advertisements represent this tenuous balance perfectly: on the one hand, they exploit the most typical imagery of a Monday Night Football commercial line-up: stealing the self-conscious dietary indulgence that has earned so much capital online (bacon? Food porn?), in the hands of a buxom Arian model seemingly straight out of a Budweiser commercial (replete with star-spangled bikini top) posing in a hot tub, along with the sine-qua-nons of U.S. sports broadcasting: an oversized truck, a country musician, military hardware, and the Statue of Liberty.
All of the ingredients are there to appeal directly to that strain of jingoistic flag-wavers who both accept and celebrate all these vestiges of their culture without any apparent need to apologize, question, or analyze how these things became emblematic of a country. Status symbols ride status symbols to celebrate a new opportunity to over-do things: buy eating a burger dressed with a hot dog and potato chips.
Yet on the other hand, the commercials simultaneously lampoon the very imagery they exploit, compounding the symbolism one literally on top of the other, in what almost becomes a remake of the opening sequence to The Colbert Report, satirically celebrating all-American excess and hyper-masculinism with a compounding cascade of mind-numbing imagery. Absurdity abounds as each cliché is greeted with another, even more ludicrous one. And, just as with satirists like Colbert, the message means something different to either friendly or contrarian audiences, depending on their own biases.
The commercials use overkill in promoting a product embodying overkill: it is simply too much food, too much America, to be taken seriously as an appeal to American pride—and yet it is, to those who accept it as such.
Consumers are too cynical and skeptical to take even earnest advertising seriously—by the estimates of Professor Mark Burgess at Rutgers Business School, consumers tend to reject as dishonest roughly 90% of the marketing messages they receive. But the Most-American Burger makes no particular assertions that hinge on honesty—they are all about image, and a fairly abstract appropriation of American cultural imagery at that.
They aren’t promising machismo, sex, or success go along with any product—only that, ironically or otherwise, they are natural associations for this product. Enter the flipside to Professor Burgess’s TED Talk: consumers put much more stock—about 80%–in the merits of word-of-mouth. And rather than asking patriotic burger-lovers to refer this new sandwich on its intrinsic value, the campaign hinges on whether consumers will embrace the over-the-top patriotic imagery, or mock it.
And it turns out not to matter which interpretation consumers align themselves with.
Ultimately, the drive-thru franchise gets to have it both ways: you can be in on the joke, ironically indulging in the burger with a knowing wink and laughably deconstructing the 1200-calorie sandwich among similarly hip company; or you can take the product and advertising campaign together at face value, representative as they both are of American cultural and gastronomic norms. Either reaction is friendly to consumption, and so constitutes a win for the corporation.
Even more fascinating than the double-whammy marketing campaign is the realization that this is a product designed entirely for marketing purposes—not a marketing campaign designed around a new product. Some burgers, even in the fast-food realm, boast of new ingredients and try for some culinary credentials with flavor combinations and innovations that smack of quality and creativity. There is no flavor-enhancing benefit to tossing a steamed hot dog on top of a cheeseburger: this is purely about the imagery, the bragging rights that go along with taking two separate foods and making them one, as ostentatiously as possible.
The creation of the Most-American Burger is inspired by the same entrepreneurial cynicism that drives people not to add value, but instead to encourage others to perceive value and spend accordingly. Of course, in this case, the only perceived value was image-based all along, so the bottom won’t fall out the same way as other doomed enterprises.
The Most-American Burger is not a product of the kitchen glamorized by the marketing department; it is the offspring of an unrestrained marketing mind, cheaply and simplistically realized in the way only fast food kitchens do.
But more than that, it is the natural extension of a state of American culture where being the joke and being in on the joke look the same, and deliberately make the same purchase.
As soon as the presidential candidates get on board with this loose appropriation of qualified irony in their own campaigns, the devolution of partisan politics in America will finally be complete.
Edgar Wilson is an Oregon native with a passion for cooking, trivia, and politics. He studied conflict resolution and international relations at Amherst College, and has split his time between New England and the Pacific Northwest ever since. He has worked in industries ranging from international marketing to broadcast journalism, currently serving as a marketing consultant and blogger. He can be reached via email here or on Twitter @EdgarTwilson.