Advertising has long relied on gendered and sexualized images and text. Advertising uses hyper-gendered images and text to catch our attention and it participates in (re)constructing stereotypes (see here). The health food craze of the 80s and 90s hit fast food restaurants hard. The McDonald’s colors (red and yellow) came to signify unhealthy food. Many chains changed their logos to include blues, purples, and greens to appeal to what they perceived to be a more “health-conscious” set of standards of American fast-food customers.
For instance, as Americans became increasingly conscious of the detrimental effects of fried food, Kentucky Fried Chicken changed its name to “KFC” and commercials in the early 2000s implied it was an abbreviation for Kitchen Fresh Chicken. But in 2007, “Kentucky Fried Chicken” was resurrected and this time period marked a change in the way fast food advertising dealt with what they perceived to be a much more health-conscious population.
While initially, fast-food chains tried to disguise their food in more healthy packaging, from the mid-2000s on many chains charted a different route to address this problem. Perhaps reminded of Bruce Firestein’s 1982 classic satirization of American masculinity, Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche, fast-food restaurants became emboldened to challenge American men to forgo health concerns in their advertisements. This theme is probably best illustrated by Burger King’s 2006 commercial, dubbed the “Manthem,” used to promote their newest sandwich to the menu: the Texas Double Whopper. The commercial rewrote Helen Reddy’s classic “I Am Woman”–a song released in 1971 that was widely held as capturing some of the spirit of feminist activism during that time.
The Manthem promotes the anti-feminist notion that men have been injured by feminism, women’s empowerment, and gender equality–that they have been tamed. Beginning with a man eating in a fine dining restaurant with a woman, and served a miniscule portion of food, he turns it down, leaves the restaurant and becomes part of a mob of men eating burgers and participating in all kinds of “manly” cultural activities. It ends with the mob storming a man driving a minivan on a bridge. The driver grabs a burger, joins the crowd, and they all triumphantly throw his van off of the bridge. This advertising theme implicitly supports evolutionary-biological myths about men’s behavior and “needs” (see McCaughey’s work on the topic here).
The commercial is clearly intentionally over the top, but a great deal of sexism and heterosexism is disguised as “just for fun” or “only a joke.” There are effects regardless of the intentions. The Manthem–and advertising like it–celebrates men coming together who have “had enough.” It exalts men engaging in all manner of dangerous, unhealthy, and anti-social acts to reclaim a manhood that Burger King is telling them they’ve lost. While less explicit, they’re participating in a discourse similar to the Men’s Rights movement (see Mike Messner’s discussion of the rise of this discourse here). These advertising campaigns foster an understanding of men as “unmanly” unless putting themselves and their well-being in harm’s way.
Feminizing health may be a good way to sell burgers, but it can’t be good for men in the long run.
—There’s not actually a good piece analyzing masculinity in fast-food advertising, and the transition in tactics seems to be a fruitful topic for further analysis. There is an interesting chapter in Food for Thought that begins this discussion, but there’s much more work to be done here.