Brow Beat

What Was Andy Warhol Doing in That Burger King Ad?

Andy Warhol, folding a Burger King hamburger in half.
The famous “Warhol fold.” Burger King / Jørgen Leth

The Super Bowl’s best ad this year was also its simplest. While other brands sunk fortunes into elaborate CGI robots and audio-animatronic Charlie Sheens, Burger King casually introduced a new corporate spokesperson who’s been dead for more than three decades. Here’s their new ad:

That’s actual footage of Andy Warhol unwrapping and eating a Burger King hamburger. If you were hoping Burger King would also release a four-and-a-half-minute cut in which Warhol eats the entire burger, including a part where he makes the questionable decision to remove the lower bun, roll the remaining burger up like a taco, and dip it in ketchup, today is your lucky day. If you’ve also always dreamed that you would someday get to watch Andy Warhol crumble up his trash and then stare into space for nearly a full minute before introducing himself, not only is today an extraordinarily lucky day for you, but I can’t believe that you’re telling the truth about your hopes and dreams. In any event, here’s the full version:

The footage was shot in 1982 by Danish documentarian Jørgen Leth for his film 66 Scenes From America, an experimental collage made up of postcard-like vignettes of American life, from a bartender making drinks at Sardi’s to, well, Andy Warhol eating a Burger King burger. As Leth explained in an interview, the lengthy ending of the Warhol segment was the result of a lucky misunderstanding:

In the Warhol scene I received an involuntary and perfectly wonderful gift, which precisely makes me believe in the magical significance of chance. … [Warhol] is told that he has to say his name and that he should do so when he has completed his action, but what happens is that the action takes a very long time to perform; it’s simply agonizing. I have to admit that I personally adore that, because it’s a pure homage to Warhol. It couldn’t be more Warholesque. That’s of course why he agreed to do it. … Finally, Warhol happens to misunderstand what he’s supposed to do, so there’s a long pause after he’s finished eating his hamburger during which time he simply sits there, ready. His eyes flicker around and he doesn’t utter the sentence immediately after he’s finished eating as I expected him to. He sits there and we see the concern in his eyes; the suspense almost kills us, although we feel compassion too in a way. At last, after a noticeable pause, he says the phrase and the explanation for the delay is that he was waiting for a cue. Now, this delay gives the scene a quite different dimension, I think.

As Ad Age reports, the inspiration for the ad seems to have come, at least in part, from genuine love for this strange little piece of film. Burger King’s global head of brand marketing Marcelo Pascoa explained why they went out of their way to put the complete shot up online, even if they couldn’t afford to run a four-minute Super Bowl commercial:

One of the things that was unique about the negotiation was that we didn’t want to change or touch the film in any way that would take away from its original intent. We knew that the best thing we could do would be to keep the film as intact as we could. … We want people to have that experience as well because it’s truly something to watch from beginning to end with that uncomfortable silence, to see the full film.

Leth’s full film is available in a Danish DVD box set of his work, but you can probably get the general gist of it from the behind-the-scenes footage Burger King released ahead of their ad, in which the Burger King himself prepares the set for Warhol:

That boom mic looks suspiciously contemporary, but perhaps that’s just Danish Modern. Still, it would be difficult to establish a historical basis for the Burger King’s involvement in the production Leth’s film, even with faked behind-the-scenes footage. That’s because, as Leth explained in another interview, Burger King wasn’t Warhol’s first choice:

I told him he had to eat a hamburger, and that wasn’t a novel thing to him. He got the idea right away. I’d sent my assistant down to get hamburgers and I specifically asked for unmarked, neutral wrappers. It could be a problem, because Warhol was so aware of his own commercial value and he might refuse to appear with a certain product. So I took my precautions. When he saw the three hamburgers I had ordered, one from Burger King and two neutral products, he said, “Where’s the McDonald’s?” I said we’d get one right away. “It’s the nicest design,” he said. “Let’s not waste time on that. I’ll eat the Burger King.” It was his choice. I hadn’t expected him to be so relaxed about the choice of product. But he preferred McDonald’s because they had the nicest design, in his very professional opinion. Burger King was okay, but he refused to work with the neutral ones. 

If the actual Burger King had been in the room for that exchange, someone would have ended up beheaded. Adding Burger King insult to Burger King injury, here’s how Variety described the full documentary when it screened at the Oberhausen Film Festival back in 1983:

“66 Scenes” is Pop Art on celluloid, a collection of riotously funny, satirical images of life-and-times in New York, southern California, the Southwest, and Florida’s Key West. The “snapshots” include, in Gotham, the bar at Sardi’s, the lobby of the Hotel Royalton and Andy Warhol eating a McDonald’s hamburger.

In fairness to Burger King, “#Warhol’s Choice (When McDonald’s Isn’t Readily Available and He Doesn’t Want to Waste Any More Time Gathering Hamburgers Because He Knows People Will Misremember Whatever He Eats as Being a McDonald’s Hamburger Anyway)” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as #EatLikeAndy. But despite the dubious historical narrative that Burger King is pushing here, the situation on the ground today draws clear battle lines. One fast food brand spent their Super Bowl money introducing Americans to experimental Danish documentaries of the early 1980s; one fast food brand spent it paying Ken Jeong to chant, “Bacon! Bacon! Bacon!” Which message will resonate more deeply with the American public? Only time will tell.