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How to Get Things with Words (Notes on the "Big King")

Burger King's irresistible promotion seems to have raised the stakes of eating out, turning fast food restaurants into yet another arena for moral and ideological struggle against corporate brainwashing.

Hsuan L. Hsu

Issue #40, October 1998

Recent television promotions for the Burger King "Big King" sandwich start with the usual close-ups of clean, well-lit, meaty brown burgers against a black backdrop accompanied by seductive music and soft sizzling noises. However, they end with an ingenious offer that, if I ate beef, would be nearly impossible to refuse: if you buy one burger for just $.99, and then say "It just tastes better!," they'll give you another one for free! There's no catch: just say it, and they'll just give you another!

Imagine a typical "bad subject" — probably underemployed and hungry — who does eat beef: is such a deal beneath her dignity? Should she hold out, patronize a different, less shamelessly benevolent establishment? Should she go to Burger King anyway, but just buy something different? Or should she just pay $1.98 for her two Big Kings? Trivial questions — but Burger King's irresistible promotion seems to have raised the stakes of eating out, turning fast food restaurants into yet another arena for moral and ideological struggle against corporate brainwashing.

But, truth be told, there is no brainwashing at all involved with the Big King, unless it's in the television ad's sexy music and the tantalizing burger close-ups. The offer is up front and explicit: Burger King has nothing to hide. There are no Ferraris or Rolexes in the background whispering subliminal promises of financial success to those who eat Big Kings. This advertising does not need to be interpreted at all, since there's nothing beneath the surface. The only implicit message here is, "We no longer even need to bother brainwashing you! Just say it, and enjoy your burgers."

The phrase in question — "It just tastes better!" — constitutes what philosophers of language call a "performative": like "I pronounce you man and wife" and "I resign," this phrase actually performs something when one utters it. Saying it has a real effect in the world: it earns the speaker a second Big King. This isn't a matter of mere rhetoric subtly persuading us to go to Burger King. It's a way of doing — and getting — things with words. It's not what you mean to say or communicate that counts. It's what you accomplish by the very act of speaking.

But "It just tastes better!" is a performative in a second sense as well: the customer who says it performs a pre-scripted role, saying something that her television has explicitly told her to say. In a sense, it's not even the customer talking anymore: Burger King speaks through her, ventriloquizes her. The promotion turns customers into its vehicles, so that it doesn't need to speak the motto anymore, because everyone's saying it to themselves. Saying "It just tastes better!" is a performance of one's submission to the Big King, a performance that no one but the speaker actually needs to hear in order for it to do its ideological work. It resembles the French philosopher Blaise Pascal's recommendation for the unfaithful: just assume the posture for prayer, pretend to pray, go through the motions, and before you know it you'll find yourself believing in God. Come in, buy one, and just say it. No matter how cheap it is, how processed its meat, and how soggy the bun, you'll start believing that "It just tastes better!"

Hold out a little cash and people will say or do anything. A promotion can even prescribe its own grammar, like Jeopardy! does, strictly enforcing the phrasing of answers as questions. Contestants don't know anything; they just think they know. Every response asks for Alex Trebek's authorization, and even Alex himself — the one who's supposed to know — sometimes gets stumped and has to ask the invisible judges whether an answer is correct, or whether a contestant's phrasing qualifies as a "genuine" question and hence as a valid answer. Just hold out some cash, advertise it, and people will address you any way you want. They'll even ask you whether what they already know is true.

Burger King has also invented its own grammar, and not just the grammar of excitement embodied in the exclamation point. After all, what are you saying when you say, "It just tastes better!"? The phrase isn't even an assertion, exactly. Better than what? Here's where the "just" — another tool in the promotional grammars — comes in. This is the "just" of Nike, where, in order to win ("nike" is Greek for victory), you "Just do it!" This phrase is actually only half of the statement "don't _______, just do it!" Don't what? Talk about it? Think? "It just tastes better!" also recalls the billboards announcing that eggs have "20% less cholesterol." Less than what? Eggs?

burger Burger King's motto embodies the rhetoric of the leading brand, what I'll call the grammar of the absolute comparative. Television promotions constantly compare soaps, laundry detergents, and insect sprays with "The Leading Brand" — typically a blank box containing a product which, not surprisingly, does absolutely nothing compared to the brand at hand. How can anyone deny that Ivory or Raid clean and kill roaches better than ________? Advertising has cut off its competition before it even begins, becoming absolutely self-referential in its attempt to achieve a kind of absolutism over our beliefs, or at least over our everyday practices. It is a commonplace that all consumer culture can be reduced to just one word, the absolute comparative itself: "More!" Every product is, almost by definition, peerless, beyond comparison, just plain incomparable.

Ironically, the most famous literary case of an absolute comparative is about aversion rather than advertising. In Herman Melville's story, "Bartleby, the Scrivener," the scrivener repeats over and over the same fragment of a sentence: "I would prefer not to." The phrase drives his boss crazy. Fleeing his office, the lawyer who employs Bartleby finally — submissively — all but begs Bartleby to leave. Bartleby's absolute comparative, with its negative "not to," is the exact inverse of Burger King's "It just tastes better!" He would prefer not to proofread what he copies, he says. But to what would he prefer it? In the century and a half since Melville wrote this "Tale of Wall Street," advertising has appropriated Bartleby's formula and reversed it, turning it into a positive ad-version rather than an expression of aversion to capitalist exploitation.

Finally, promotions like Burger King's have (ironically) transformed irony from a means of resistance into a source of power. The cultural critic Slavoj Zizek has pointed this out on numerous occasions, and it is a fact that we need to have put before us continually: irony is not — or is no longer — a sufficient form of resistance to the manipulations of power. Instead of leaving her own office, a contemporary lawyer would reply to Bartleby's negative preference, "Look, I don't care what you prefer. Just do it. That's what I pay you for." The common usage by which "to buy" means "to believe" — as well as other phrases like "to be invested in something" and "to put stock in an idea" — reflect the extent to which consumerism is economically defined by practices rather than attitudes. Political satire and critical distance are part of the system because they reflect the irony of the fact that, often, we have no choice but to smile ironically while obeying. Promoters could care less whether we're sarcastic or blindly uncritical when we purchase their products. Whether you believe it or not, just buy it! After all, what else can one eat for $.99?

Even Burger King makes it easy not to take its promotion seriously. One can pay for a Big King, scoff at the absurdity of it all, and say scornfully, "It just tastes better!" It would still work. Irony may say something other than what it means, but communicative "meaning" is only one, non-performative dimension of language. The promotion focuses not on referential language (what I mean to say) but on performative language (what I do by saying it, no matter how I say it). An ironic speech act (such as my performance would certainly be) would still perform its function. It would get me my Big King, and it would still leave me all the more susceptible to the workings of an ideology that doesn't care what or whether we think or believe anymore, so long as we buy and do what we're told.

So what is to be done? After all, the present essay's tone has itself been ironical throughout, and there seems to be no alternative mode of expressing aversion to advertising. We need to learn to speak in a different, un-ironic register, since irony to some extent presupposes resignation, and cannot help repeating (however sarcastically) the very motto it wants to erase. We need to find a way to speak performatively in one sense (insofar as our speech could accomplish something in the world) without our speech being a mere performance of a prescribed commercial grammar.

Hsuan Hsu is a graduate student in English at UC Berkeley who specializes in theme parks, game shows, and Melville.

Copyright © 1998 by Hsuan L. Hsu. Drawing by Mike Mosher. All rights reserved.