The Male Gaze, Power Struggle, and A Need for Burgers?: Carl’s Jr’s Ad Shift
Carl’s Jr. is infamous for their former ad campaigns involving models, actresses, and pop culture personalities to sell burgers. These ads typically contained a woman in very little clothing biting into an overly large burger in order to sell the fast food brand. In 2016, the company announced they’d be trying something different with their ad campaigns and focusing more on the actual product and less on the models. This came after a Superbowl ad garnered some negative attention from the media and women’s groups.
As you can see, this ad involves the model Charlotte McKinney walking through a crowd of men to eat a burger. The ad not only implies that McKinney is naked, it also depicts her in a setting where every male is completely dressed and performing a job, she being a ‘distraction’. This ad is not the first of its kind, other famous personalities used in commercials include Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashion, and Kate Upton.
The reason these ads from Carls Jr became considered problematic are the societal and heteronormativities that they enforce. In the instance of Charlotte McKinney’s ad we can quite literally watch one of these phenomena occur. The male gaze, which refers to the way that men ideally want to view women typically in a sexual and overly feminine way, is brought to life in this ad. McKinney is not only depicted as being the sexual object of the ad but also the main focus of every single male’s gaze in the commercial. The central issue within the idea of a male gaze is this objectification of women, McKinney is reduced to an object to view and to sell a burger. She doesn’t actually speak for most of the commercial or do anything but walk through a market. Every male in the commercial is working on something, is completely clothed (rather warmly with long sleeves for the majority), and has some form of signification in their role of the commercial. Each male has a focus on his face, not his sexual parts or body at all, and each man is meant to emphasize her objectification. And every representation in the ad features a seemingly heterosexual standard, meaning that between a male and female relationship, and this contributes to the idea of a male gaze and objectification of women. It’s the most normalized and basic representation of sexualized women, straight, white, overly feminine.
(Photo courtesy of Carl’s Jr.)
These commercials were also problematic because of their representation of an ideal for women, they were always large breasted, blond girls who looked perfect in bikinis and were seemingly ‘flawless’ creating and perpetuating the standard of beauty for women to rise to. These ideals of femininity are nearly impossible to fufill and only represent a tiny portion of the female population. Carl’s Jr. ads only used white, straight, cis-gender, and able-bodied women. The use of these is highlighting a lack of diversity considered ideal within beauty standards, femininity, and the male gaze.
Unsurprisingly, these ads were created for men by men. When interviewed about the companies image the former CEO Andy Pudzer claimed that the sexual advertisements “saved the brand.”
“I think that any grocery store you go into, or drug stores you’re going to see on magazine covers things that are more revealing than you saw in many of our ads. I’m sorry that they feel that way, but we saved the company with those ads, we saved a lot of jobs” -Andy Pudzer (Fox News, 2017)
These claims justify a male privilege that companies such as Carl’s Jr. can follow, they don’t have a need to protect females and their integrities because they’re not within the demographic. However, the claim has some traction, the commercial featuring Charlotte McKinney was the third most shared Superbowl ad in history when it aired. And it only aired on the West Coast. This means the reach of the ad was incredibly popular and potentially influential in societal standards. They control the way these women are being seen and therefore have a power of the women without their say. Pudzer was CEO of sixteen years and controlled much of the ad changes involved within the company. The new changes to ad campaigns only came with his replacement, Jason Marker.
The new ad campaign follows a formula to show the viewer the quality of the food not the sexualization of women. This switch is a demonstration of changing times, while Pudzer may claim that the sexualized ads targeted their demographic and created a spike in sales for the company, they face controversy and the best direction is to rebrand. With a focus on the quality of food however, are they still trying to tap into that same demographic? The new ads have focus on beef and hearty meals- big burgers. So while they may be dropping the attempt to get young men in the doors with barely dressed women, they’re still keeping their demographic involved with the actual food.
In this commercial we see “Carl Jr” and “Carl Sr” duke it out over how to advertise. At first it seems this could be just a way to discuss more of the oversexualized personas, Carl Jr defending his poster on the wall and explaining that the girls make sales. But when Carl Sr destroys this advertising strategy we see a female character, this time working at a desk, fully clothed, and educated, unplug the TV. This representation of a woman pulling the plug on the sexist advertisements is important to give the company a base for more viewers, it shifts the focus of the commercial from the women to the narration of food. Carl Sr. engages in a flashback and dissolves imagery of the sexualized females, instead showing women dressed fully and more conservatively. The aim to display food and equality between the men and women in the commercial gives the company an opportunity to market to a food lover, not a misogynist.
The one flaw with this commercial is that it is still a male dominated power seemingly saving a woman. The women in this commercial, while holding power by pulling the plug and judging Carl Jr, are being rescued from the horrible advertising by Carl Sr. seemingly. The women are not in control of their situation and there are almost no lines spoken by a female in the entire advertisement that represent the change. So the male dominance and patriarchal standards are still in place.
Perhaps the best move for the company is their spoof on their own sexualized commercials. In November 2018 Carl’s Jr decided to release a series of advertisements mocking their former ad attempts with female comedians such as Celeste Barber. These advertisements have garnered attention for being lighthearted and fun. The acknowledgement of the company’s former missteps seems to be positively spun with this indictment of humor and the female narrative shift.
This narrative shift is important in targeting the wider demographic of families and women. Their previous ads alienated women through objectification but these ads mock that and replace it with identifiable and relatable female figures. Patty Trevino, senior vice president of brand marketing for Carl’s Jr., developed this shift in advertising strategy for exactly that reason:
“As a mother, I see myself in these ads. I hose down car seats, just like Celeste. I’m constantly running around picking up after [my kids]. I think everyone can see a little bit of themselves in Celeste’s humor, which is what makes it so real.”
This shift to humor and relatability will hopefully translate into a more broad audience for Carl’s Jr.