No one can doubt that this has been a busy few weeks for Burger King Chief Marketing Officer Fernando Machado in the wake of a much-maligned ad as part of the #cowsmenu campaign. It addressed the sustainability issue of trying to reduce cattle emissions by feeding lemongrass to livestock, but the specific video ad also approached that topic by featuring kids in gas masks, a “redneck farmer” stereotype, and references to “cow farts.”
The blowback from the agricultural community that Machado and the WeBelievers ad agency got was of tsunami-like proportions. Even the vibe of the “apology” that Burger King put out didn’t sit well with some producers.
Part of the job of a chief marketing officer involves trying to put a company’s best foot forward, especially when there’s this kind of negativity to address. Machado has since gone on farm tours with AGDAILY columnist and Farm Babe blogger Michelle Miller to learn about modern agriculture.
More recently, he put himself in some difficult crosshairs when he agreed to come onto the What the Farm podcast (embedded just below) and speak with co-hosts Rob Sharkey and Lesley Kelly. Sharkey, especially, isn’t known for his subtlety (just ask the CEO of Tillable), and the pair asked Machado some pointed questions about the ad spot.
Sharkey and Kelly did use this opportunity to help bridge a gap in agriculture, which included striving to understand all sides of the story. They talked with Machado about whether it was prudent to build an advertising effort around unpublished science and whether there was intent to throw agricultural producers under the bus by hyping a still-nascent alternative food source. The discussion looked at how there’s no one-size-fits all approach to ag, and in places such as Canada (where Kelly is based), lemongrass would have to be shipped to the livestock or added artificially since it is not native to the region, thus possibly negating some or all of the carbon-footprint savings.
Sharkey noted, too, how livestock get a disproportionate amount of blame despite the small amount of greenhouse emissions actually connected to them and that BK would be well served to look at other aspects of its business to improve upon if reducing their carbon footprint is really a focus.
Machado talked a lot about not expecting this kind of backlash and saying he didn’t intend for it to play out this way. He said the video was meant to be funny and self-deprecating. However, some of the lingering skepticism relates to Machado’s prior marketing efforts at Burger King, including the deceptive practices used in this past winter’s “Real Food Gets Ugly” campaign, where the implication was that BK’s food molds over time while McDonald’s food does not, hence BK’s food is more “real” (spoiler: preservatives aren’t scary, and moisture exposure is a major factor here). Couple that with BK’s addition of the plant-based Impossible Burger to its menu and Impossible’s CEO aggressively stating that he wants to put beef out of business entirely, and you understand why there’s so much concern.
It’s hard to tell at this point whether Machado and the rest of the fast-food chain are going to put their recent words into action. He pledged to bring farmers into future marketing discussions and, hopefully, the hands-on education he received during the farm tours pays off.
The push toward sustainability is vital to lots of industries, and agriculture, of course, elevates that through the development of new technologies and strategies. After all, who doesn’t want to be on the right side of history? It’s a concept that was even discussed on the podcast episode, using the example of how a brand such as Nike rallied around pro football player Colin Kaepernick when he knelt during the playing of the National Anthem. But social justice should be the adoption of a whole, not a part, of what’s right. And in the Nike example, the sportswear brand may have been on the right side of racial social justice issues, but Nike has also far too long wallowed on the wrong side of gender social justice issues — something we’ve seen over and over and over again.
Let’s hope that Burger King really steps up and looks not just at lemongrass but also at how aspects such as transportation costs, food waste, and employee pay and advancement are handled.
It’s definitely worth it to listen to the full 35-minute What the Farm podcast to understand it all for yourself.