Pop Culture Under a Microscope

“Sometimes, it’s just expensive.”

There’s a Hardee’s/Carl Jr. commercial that’s really been bothering me lately.  It’s been around awhile, but I saw it again recently for the first time in forever, and for some reason it struck me much more this time.

Hardee’s Cheater Ad

The ad involves a young, attractive guy waiting around a car repair shop while his classic car gets a working-over.  The car, we see from several quick, close shots, has apparently been attacked by vandals—there is spray paint on nearly every body panel.  Our hero, though, seems unperturbed; he eats his french fries and burger eagerly as he looks on, with a smug, even amused, expression on his face.  We wonder about this guy’s calm and sense of humor about the whole thing; how can he be so cool when someone trashed his beautiful car?  Though the connection is not initially clear, the narrator tells us, “Sometimes, having three girlfriends is great.”

Then, as Joe Burger finishes his sandwich, the narrator continues, “other times, it’s just expensive.”  At this point, we finally see the bigger picture of the damage: scrawled across the side of the car is the large, angry word, CHEATER.  In this moment, we are united with Joe Burger in his amusement about the clearly hysterical woman who has done this to his ride, and how much it must have been worth it, though the woman is obviously devastated.  By this time we’re thoroughly identified with Joe, so we think, Oh man. That sucks, but that’s the tradeoff you signed up for.  The camera cuts to one of the men buffing the car, who glances up at Joe and shakes his head with a smile.  Boys will be boys.

Isn’t it interesting that Hardee’s uses this kind of behavior as the model for viewer identification, while the absent woman in the ad is dismissed as, at best, unimportant, and at worst, maniacal?  The word on the car makes an unmistakable accusation against Joe, which the narrator confirms as true, but he nonetheless remains the sympathetic figure, and rather than wondering at the circumstances—whether he broke her heart or gave her an STD or maybe just promised things he never meant to do—instead we feel united in our understanding that men will simply do whatever they must to obtain frequent and varied sex, and that women sure can be crazy bitches.  Isn’t that funny, we think; he is just a typical guy, and her response is just so female.

My husband reassures me Hardee’s never intended for viewers to think so deeply about the whole thing.  Of course not: if you think too much about it, the ad won’t work.  It relies on our identification with Joe, and an instant, unthinking solidarity with him.  Why would Hardee’s use a lying philanderer to represent their product unless they expected you to relate to him rather than judge him?  You are like Joe, the ad trusts: you’d like to have as many women as possible; maybe your own girlfriend goes a little nutso sometimes, but it’s nothing to get too worked up about—a good burger and a new paint job will make the whole thing a minor amusement. Thankfully, they seem to have misjudged at least a few of us, since there has been some amount of backlash to the ad online.  (For example, YouTube user Caprese7777 comments that “The subtext is that it’s cool for young men to ‘consume’ women the same way they’d enjoy a burger, without regard to the womens’ feelings, which can be wiped away like so much paint.”)  Still, the fact that this goes over as well as it does is a fairly sad statement on our lingering ideas about gender norms and relationships.

But this sort of thing is especially sinister, I think, because ads like these don’t just rely on shared “knowledge” about gender and culture, they create it.  How do we know that men are hopelessly promiscuous and women are hysterical over-reactors, except that we’ve seen it on TV?  Have you ever known a jilted woman who actually trashed some guy’s car, aside from fast food ads and Carrie Underwood videos?  Our culture establishes certain “truths” as commonplace, and then uses those same “truths” as an easy way to get the viewer to relate.   It’s a fantastically successful tactic; I saw the ad maybe ten times (with the sound off, admittedly,) before I moved past amusement and started to be annoyed.  But the success of these ads is unfortunate, because, in the end, it’s not just burgers they manage to sell.

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  1. There are plenty of tasteless ads out there, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one quite as offensive as this one. I’m surprised it got aired. I guess Hardees has been going for a “burgers for dudes” thing with their ads, but this is beyond a chick in a bikini eating a burger, it’s just fundamentally cruel.

    I don’t doubt that these ads create this kind of behavior, but I’d be interested to look at what effect they really have. Granted, in a post civil/women’s rights world, things are going to be better, I just question how much ads like these affect ideas that have existed long before mass media inundation.

    I’m not saying they don’t hurt things, but in the big picture maybe their effect is much less broad. We’ve all seen the ridiculously sexist ads from the 40s and 50s…in another 40 years maybe ads like this hardees comercial will be more broadly accepted as horrifying too…despite the media’s best efforts.

  2. As an ex big agency ad designer/creator I have to say that this kind of garbage is the tip of the iceberg.

    The foundation of ad agencies is constructed of ego and profit. Most of the minions that develop these ads think they are god’s gift to talent.. they call themselves rock stars and walk around like they are the most important people in the room, no matter where they are and no matter how expendable their job is.

    It is this kind of narcissistic culture that presents these low brow ideas as desirable and functional marketing ideas… my point is that in order to “fix” or change advertising the agency must change; the people must change, and ideas need a new measuring stick.

    Although I’ve made a personal vow to never work in this kind of environment ever again, I still keep in touch with a few creatives… and hang around designer blogs… and nothing is changing. So I agree, these kinds of ads say more about our culture than cheaters say about burgers…

    I’ve been out of the country for the past three years… the first few things I was exposed to within the first 24 hours being back…

    – Threat Level Orange
    – Penis Enlargement Radio Ads
    – Glenn Beck ranting misinformation

    They’ll do anything to distract us from the meaningful truth.


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