Whopper Virgins: Nanook Revisited?
by Chris Boulton — University of Massachusetts, Amherst
January 25, 2009 – 21:06
This faux documentary viral video ad campaign from Burger King reminds me of that infamous scene from Robert Flaherty’s "Nanook of the North" when Nanook leans in to listen to a phonograph, then carefully examines and bites the record. Of course, like many of the other scenes in Flaherty’s film, this moment was contrived to recreate the spectacle of a more "authentic" Inuit culture for a more “modern” American audience. Nanook was no "virgin." He knew damn well what a record was and, in the film, the gag is played for laughs. In similar fashion, Burger King’s romantic premise of an international potluck is just a set-up for the money shot: the goofy "other" in the funny outfit looking utterly confused by something we industrialized Westerners take for granted. (Note that the white guys behind the camera are never humiliated like that, never display any fear or naiveté when confronted with novel cuisine.)
But would the neocolonial adventure travelers targeted by this message really want a tacky fast food franchise to pop up smack-dab in the middle of a picturesque village? Surely this would violate the "purity" of ancient traditions so beloved by both Flaherty and the modern tourist collecting visual trophies to display to their friends back home. In an ironic twist, the cultural caché of such digital safaris seem to echo the very distribution logic which underpins the "Whopper Virgins" viral campaign: "Hey, guys, look what I found online!"
At first glace, this all struck me as just another ugly throw-back to the “human zoos” of World’s Fairs past. But could “Whopper Virgins” also be doing some good? For instance, what do you think of the "I’d like to buy a world a Coke" globalization ethos that swirls around this text? Like Nanook in its time, might this crass quasi-anthropological navel-gazing through the other also serve to help spark an affective response of identification with an utterly unfamiliar native culture? In other words, could there be some cross-cultural empathy tucked inside that greasy hamburger wrapper of commercialism?