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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Burger King Bows to TV Watchdogs : Advertising: The hamburger chain attempts to pull itself out of the frying pan with an ad trumpeting the corporation's devotion to 'traditional American values.'

November 14, 1990|HOWARD ROSENBERG

What did it mean?

The half-page ad--echoing the tone of loyalty oaths that cowardly television networks made their employees sign during the "Red-scare" frenzy in the decade following World War II--appeared in several hundred newspapers Nov. 4-5. Out of the blue. No explanation.

This was the title: "An Open Letter to the American People."

This was the text:

"Burger King wishes to go on record as supporting traditional American values on television, especially the importance of the family.

"We believe the American people desire television programs that reflect the values they are trying to instill in their children.

"We pledge to support such programs with our advertising dollars."

The ad was signed: Burger King Corp.

Although it was heartening to learn of Burger King's devotion to "traditional American values"--it just chokes you up--why would the giant hamburger chain feel the need to proclaim its "pledge" to the nation?

The case has all the earmarks of a corporation choosing profits over principle by gutlessly caving in to a pressure group, the way much of the entertainment industry in the postwar years cowered before extremist, Red-hunting sleuths out of fear of political and economic reprisal.

The Burger King ad that ran in The Times and elsewhere surfaced following an eyeballing confrontation between Burger King and Wheaton, Ill.-based Christian Leaders for Responsible Television (CLeaR-TV).

The ad spoke for itself: Burger King had blinked.

CLeaR-TV, a self-described coalition of about 1,600 Christian leaders, announced on Sept. 1 that it would boycott Burger King, charging the company with being a "leading sponsor of network TV sex, violence, profanity and anti-Christian bigotry" during the May ratings sweeps. No specifics were given.

Feeling the sizzle from a conservative religious group with apparent economic clout, Burger King didn't take long to react.

"As soon as we learned about the boycott, we started having meetings with CLeaR representatives," Burger King spokesman Michael Evans said from the firm's Miami headquarters.

"They were at the table because of the boycott," boasted CLeaR-TV's chairman, the Rev. Billy Melvin.

There were two meetings, the first Sept. 27 in a Chicago hotel, the second on Oct. 17 at CLeaR-TV's Washington, D.C., office. Two weeks after the second meeting, CLeaR-TV called off its boycott, and five days after that, Burger King's "open letter to the American people" began appearing in newspapers.

Both sides are fuzzy about what happened in the two meetings and why the boycott was dropped. But draw your own conclusion about Burger King: If it crawls like a groveler and whines like a groveler, it usually is a groveler.

What promises did Burger King make to CLeaR-TV? "I'm not aware of any promises about anything," Evans said.

"We asked the company to prescreen programs (on which they advertise), and we believe sincerely they will follow through in avoiding programs that have excessive sex, violence and profanity," Melvin said.

"We've always prescreened shows," Evans said.

Although it would seem that CLeaR-TV's two-month boycott was too skimpy to profoundly affect Burger King revenues, Melvin insists that it was "very clearly effective." Burger King "had franchise people who were screaming," he said.

Burger King denies that.

Moreover, placing the ad was "an internal business decision" made only "indirectly" in response to the boycott, Evans said. "The decision to run that ad was ours. It wasn't part of any deal. We were concerned that there were a lot of misconceptions in the minds of our consumers and that there were hundreds of thousands of them out there who didn't see the news release (from CleaR-TV) calling the boycott off."

Asked to define the "traditional American values" that the ad says Burger King supports, Evans seemed at a loss.

"It's an evolutionary thing," he said. "Values have changed. We're for programming that reflects the mainstream of our consumers. We do not wish to offend any population group."

Melvin had no trouble supplying a definition: "I think of a man and a woman not engaging in premarital sex until they are married, of a man and woman committing themselves to this relationship the rest of their lives, of children respectful of their parents, parents spending time with their child to build a good home. I think of such virtues as honesty, decency, fair play, justice."

He acknowledged the gap often separating some of these ideals and reality. "That doesn't mean you don't hold up the ideal," he said.

The values reflected in numerous May sweeps programs on which Burger King advertised are "destructive," Melvin said. "They are bad for the country. They are destroying the quality of life here. When someone tells me to turn off TV or flip the channel, what they really are asking me to do is walk away from something that is destructive and evil."

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