Burger King, sexism and advertising


Photo Courtesy of Anthony92931/Wikimedia

Burger King’s International Women’s day tweet went astray when the company was accused of sexism by many online.

The fast food restaurant Burger King has been thrown into controversy due to its tweets on International Women’s day. 

Burger King UK tweeted out “Women belong in the kitchen” following it up with a thread introducing a new scholarship program, funded by their foundation, for women who want to enroll in culinary school. 

“If they want to, of course. Yet only 20% of chefs are women. We’re on a mission to change the gender ratio in the restaurant industry by empowering female employees with the opportunity to pursue a culinary career,” read the follow up tweet. 

According to the restaurant’s website, they plan to help close this gender gap by awarding $25,000 H.E.R., or Helping Equalize Restaurants, scholarships each to “at least two” employees. 

In addition to the tweets using the sexist adage the restaurant also took out a full page ad in the New York Times displaying the phrase which, according to the Washington Post, could cost around $65,000 as “a similarly sized display at the typical standby rate is estimated to cost $65,000, though the price can range depending on the specifics of the ad.” The Times, however, has not released the actual cost.

If Burger King spent anywhere near this amount then they would have spent about $15,000 more on the sexist ad advertising the fact that they are awarding scholarships than they actually spent to award the scholarships. Even if the company had not used the sexist phrase the money they spent shows how the company is more concerned with earning publicity points than actually addressing and fixing the issues of women’s inequality in the food industry. 

After much backlash ensued at the restaurant they attempted to defend the tweet. 

According to USA Today, “When a user called the company’s tweet ‘weird,’ Burger King UK responded: ‘We think it’s weird that women make up only 20% of chefs in the UK restaurant industry.’”

Even other companies began to criticize the tweet. The Twitter account KFC Gaming suggested that the brand delete the tweet, but Burger King declined and instead replied “Why would we delete a tweet that’s drawing attention to a huge lack of female representation in our industry, we thought you’d be on board with this as well?” 

Eventually, the brand seemed to realize the error of its ways and issued an apology on Twitter.

“We hear you. We got our initial tweet wrong and we’re sorry. Our aim was to draw attention to the fact that only 20% of professional chefs in UK kitchens are women and to help change that by awarding culinary scholarships. We will do better next time,” said Burger King UK. 

A little while later the restaurant deleted the tweet saying that “It was brought to our attention that there were abusive comments in the thread and we don’t want to leave the space open for that.”  

However, an Instagram post from Burger King UK using the sexist adage with the phrase in large bold letters and “Yet women only make up 20% of chefs,” in small print underneath alongside a caption promoting their scholarship is currently still up. The Instagram post was posted the same day as the tweet, but while the tweet was deleted almost 3 weeks ago the Instagram post remains up. In the comments under the post there are many abusive remarks with people attacking each other based on whether or not they support the ad. 


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A post shared by Burger King UK (@burgerkinguk)

The fact that Burger King has still not taken down the Instagram post shows that the brand has yet to actually consider the harm it has caused by contributing to the many sexist advertising campaigns that populate both our screens and our newspapers. It is also very revealing about the fact that the brand does not truly care about maintaining a safe space for women, but rather only cares about their image and how the backlash they received damages that image. 

This newest controversy adds to a history of Burger King being called sexist. In 2018 during the World Cup, the company’s Russian team promised three million rubles and a lifetime supply of Whoppers to any Russian woman who got pregnant by a World Cup player. 

“Women who manage to get the best football genes will ensure Russia’s success in future generations,” said the brand.

The company deleted the offer off of their social media accounts and apologized in a statement to the Associated Press saying “We are sorry about the clearly offensive promotion that the team in Russia launched online” and that the post “does not reflect our brand or our values and we are taking steps to ensure this type of activity does not happen again.”

The promise to ensure that sexist promotion such as this “does not happen again” seems to have failed as evidenced by recent events. 

“This real life lesson in what not to do should be heeded by Burger King as well as by other companies and should be a catalyst for internal change within advertising to make sure that offensive stereotypes are wiped from our ads permanently.”

— Kat Swift

Burger King may want to find a way to stick to that promise as it is evidenced by several studies that using stereotypes in ads can create a negative association with a brand. One study that was featured in the Washington Post was conducted by several Harvard Business School researchers and found that when businesses try to target ads to consumers using identity appeals, if the ad is directed at a marginalized community and uses a stereotype, people who identify with that community tend to react negatively to those ads. 

On the opposite side of this a study conducted by Facebook in 2017 found that when a brand uses “gender positive advertising,” 48 percent of people surveyed said they felt more loyal to that brand and 51 percent of women surveyed said they would prefer to shop from the brand. 

Studies such as these are particularly important for brands to look at and consider the results of so that they do not make the mistake of alienating customers through the use of offensive stereotypes. 

In the end, the ads Burger King put out may have done more harm to their brand and to women than the scholarships and their promotion did good. Burger King had an opportunity to make up for past mistakes and to celebrate the many accomplishments of women over the years through these scholarships, but instead they decided to use sexist advertising and spend more money on brand promotion saying that they were helping women break gender boundaries than actually helping women succeed. This real life lesson in what not to do should be heeded by Burger King as well as by other companies and should be a catalyst for internal change within advertising to make sure that offensive stereotypes are wiped from our ads permanently. 


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