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Does Burger TV Ad Inhabit a Values-Free Zone?

April 26, 2002|Dana Parsons

I told myself it was just a TV commercial about a cheeseburger. Not something to get worked up about. It was supposed to be funny. Hey, I'm a funny guy; why wasn't I laughing?

It's probably because deep down, we're all sick little puppies, and the commercial dredged up an uncomfortable moment from long ago. Even so, I was still willing to forget about the commercial until Laguna Hills businessman Michael McLean contacted me and said he was royally outraged by it.

So, here we go. The spot was aired for the AM PM convenience stores and shows father and son in a van, chowing down on burgers, nachos and sodas. Dad turns to son and goes over the story they're going to tell Mom--namely, that they had salads for lunch. Apparently, Mom is a stickler for healthier stuff than that found in burgers and nachos.

Father and son square their stories, and the commercial ends with Dad suggesting they get some breath mints to further conceal their deed.

In essence, the cover-up is complete.

That's what riled McLean, a 51-year-old husband of 30 years and father of a grown son. What kind of message does that send, he asks, in an age when Enron and Arthur Andersen, not to mention some elements in the Roman Catholic Church, are covering up misdeeds?

It's just a commercial, I timidly offer.

"Funny you should mention that," he says. "They're just commercials as long as they stay within certain lines of responsibility. For example, if Mom had popped out and busted them on the spot, OK, that's a commercial. That's satire."

McLean makes the point that children saw that commercial. If it was supposed to be funny, he says, "this one slipped through some startling cracks. I see no sense of social responsibility whatsoever."

Wait a darn minute, says Kris Kaligian, the advertising manager for BP West Coast Products, the parent company of the convenience store chain that adjoins Arco service stations and operates in five Western states.

She reiterates that the commercial "is intended to be humorous."

Kaligian is extremely good-natured in the face of McLean's complaint, but that's not to say she's dismissive of him. But neither does she seem inclined to lapse into a lengthy philosophical defense of the commercial.

"You get positive and negative feedback on advertising," she says. "Advertising is one of those things; it happens to be something that elicits reaction--some foreseen and some unforeseen."

I ask if the ad team anticipated adverse reaction to the father-son commercial. Or if the thinking is that even negative reaction would generate buzz about the company.

"We're never looking for negative feedback," Kaligian says. The food in the commercial is sold at the minimarkets, and the intent, "obviously, was to have a humorous message ... and to sell cheeseburgers."

My verdict? I don't share McLean's outrage, but I should. He's raising a legitimate issue, and I winced at the commercial just as I assume many others did.

Here's why I didn't like it: Thirty-five years ago, Dad and I headed for some local nighttime outing. Once in the car, however, Dad informed me we were instead taking a 90-minute trip to an out-of-town racetrack that he liked.

Fine by me. Except ... the next thing out of his mouth was that I wasn't to tell Mom.

I remember being greatly bothered by that. I was equally close to both parents and wanted no part of deceiving Mom nor squealing on Dad. Worse, though, was knowing that Dad would instigate such a scam and include me as a co-conspirator.

The incident stuck with me, with a weird twist I've added only in recent years.

What if, I asked myself, Mom was in on it? What if Dad's strategy, even if misguided, was to let me think he and I shared a secret? Father-son bonding on a road trip?

I've embraced that diagnosis. That Dad, what a scamp.

Unfortunately, he's gone to that great paddock in the sky and can't be quizzed. Mom could probably clear the whole thing up.

If I ever decide to ask her about it.

Which I won't.


Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821 or by writing to him at The Times' Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or by e-mail to

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