How to Anger Women on International Women’s Day, by Burger King

Burger King #IWD campaign infuriates thousands

In December 2020, Burger King UK gained a noble nod of approval when they handed over their Instagram account to local restaurants for free advertising. ‘They need you more than ever!’, they said in the post, explaining their wish to help independent restaurants hard hit by the pandemic.

Burger King’s post offers free advertising for restaurants

I’m not going to analyse the attempt, but I’ll say it was well received. Marketers and journalists covered the idea, citing a great example of how social responsibility can help brand likeability. For the most part, consumers liked it, restaurants liked it. And BK stuck to their word, advertising local restaurant dishes around the country for the past few months. Burger King search terms spiked and they were enjoying a stream of praise.

Until International Women’s Day, March 8th.

Screenshot of Burger King UK’s Instagram (taken 10th March 09:30am)

In case you’re squinting and wondering whether you see that first post right, here it is, in all its glory. I’ve screenshotted instead of embedding it, as the post has already been deleted on Twitter, a hint to how people took it.

Burger King’s 2021 International Women’s Day post

If the move wasn’t risky enough, they put this in a print campaign in both the UK and US, immortalising the idea forever. Was the person responsible feeling masochistic, or did they genuinely think that this type of ad would work on a day meant to celebrate women? Or did they, as suggested by tens of thousands around the internet, have little input from women?

Some are defending the idea (it’s a style of advertising leveraging shock factor, isn’t it? We’re here talking about it, aren’t we?). People are talking about it, all right. And one thing is clear: a lot of women are mad.

I’m genuinely surprised that any ad these days would say that women belong anywhere. The language implies that the statement comes from a man and epitomises a time where women had less respect and fewer rights. With gender inequality still pervasive all around the world, I wonder — is this really the best approach?

Credit: Teodor Skrebnev

One might argue that the content of the post justifies the means. The post content seems nice enough, the launch of a scholarship for women to help even out the gender inbalance in chefs. Yet, it’s embarrassingly vague, with no details of what it includes, how to apply for it, or where to find out information. It completely pales next to the aggression of the post that pulls you in.

Burger King took down the Twitter post and their global CMO, Fernando Machado, apologised. The statement (alongside their social media apology) feels dismissive, in the cadence of: we’re trying to do a good thing, so stop criticising us if we don’t do it right. We have some women in senior positions, what more do you want? Others defend Burger King, saying they’re a responsible business who should get some slack.

I still wonder, if the real objective was to spread awareness on this new initiative, why there is so little information of it upfront. And I believe that, despite good that they’ve done in the past, this is not how a responsible brand owns up to a mistake.

Burger King’s apology

The problem with the apology is that it makes it sound like an oops! moment, which it is not. It’s the use of a misogynistic idea that prevails and hurts women to this day as a ploy to get attention. And then if you read on to the part that’s meant to be helpful, it’s super foggy.

If it was intentional, BK look pretty bad right now. If it wasn’t intentional, they look pretty bad right now. My best guess is that someone got caught up with the expression, thinking it’d be catchy. Once convinced, they refused to listen to warnings or understand that it doesn’t even reflect what they were trying to say properly, which is (I assume):

“Only 20% of women make up chefs, but we’d like to change that. Visit our website to find out about our new scholarships for women.”

There are plenty of lessons to be learned here. If you want to take a stance, this is not how to do it. If you have good intentions, use good language that reflects them. And if you get it wrong, apologise sincerely, don’t downplay it. Women defending themselves are on the receiving end of abuse because of it. Own up. Properly.

Finally, if you want to help empower women on a day meant to celebrate them, don’t lure them in with a joke at their expense. It’s that simple.


Marketing copywriter based in London. Follow me for stories on writing, marketing, travel & philosophy.

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