Whopper in Paradise
My honey and I recently returned from a much-needed vacation in Puerto Rico. We left in search of blistering sunshine and made a pact that we would not, in any way, muddle our sub-tropical getaway by talking (or thinking, for that matter) about work.
No e-mail, no Facebook, no TV, no magazines. I had prematurely convinced myself that, beyond the obvious turista zones, la Boriken would be all isolated tropical beaches, frosty bebidas and rolling hills. It wouldn’t be conducive to any sort of research.
I was missing the forethought that a reasonable chunk of Puerto Rico’s economy relies on tourism (der), and has since the late 1940s, when many U.S. companies set up in Puerto Rico because of cheap labor and duty-free imports. Not only are the island’s metro areas completely saturated with standard out-of-towner souvenir crap (made in China!), but a short jaunt on HWY 52 proves that certain U.S. brands are booming in Puerto Rico.
Case in point: At the rental car lot, we asked the agent for directions to our hotel. His route referenced three separate Burger King “restaurants” as landmarks along the ten-minute drive. We laughed, he did not.
He wasn’t joking. In just a few miles, we indeed spotted three BK’s — and a handful of other chains along the way. Massive signs stuck out from behind palm trees and blocked the Isla Verde skyline. We were in metro San Juan, near the airport and one of the largest harbors in the Caribbean, so at first it didn’t seem out of the ordinary. But then we traveled southwest to some of the oldest municipalities on the island, and BK followed us. As we cooed at the picturesque hills and Caribbean sunlight, our view was blocked by towering billboards. Even in the sleepy colonial city where we spent the night, BK occupied a storefront on a historical plaza directly across the road from a 17th-century cathedral.
This seemed ludicrous, so I did some flat-footing once we got back to the mainland. In 1963, a company called Caribbean Restaurants, LLC jumped on the economic boom spurred by Operation Bootstrap in the late ’40s (shifting labor to manufacturing and tourism) and brought the first Burger King to the island. Currently, the same company operates about 165 of the 172 BK restaurants in Puerto Rico.
In the states, BK’s ads (by firm Crispin Porter + Bogusky) have managed to stir up a lot of controversy for the family-friendly burger chain. CP+B’s tongue-in-cheek TV ads for the flame-broiled giant are typically sexual in nature — most notably this grosser, promoting a hoagie-style sandwich. More recently, they found themselves under scrutiny from Mexican officials for this series that some feel defamed the Mexican flag. The BK advertising approach is slightly more benign in Puerto Rico, though. Even the use of the eerie,glossy-faced mascot is minimal. The assumption, it seems, is that salaciousness need not be employed to sell burgers – they sell themselves.
Puerto Rico is one of the largest fast food markets in the Americas, but it holds no specific target demographic. The majority of the workforce is full time and many families are single-parent, leaving little time to cook. The birth rate is also relatively low, so teens make up only a small portion of the demographic and ads have to translate well across age gaps. Income is low, and the island has a staggering number of unemployed — the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that as of December 2009, Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate was more than 14 percent. (Its adult obesity rate is also more than 64 percent, according to the Kaiser Foundation.) The common thread across the population — limited time and even more limited funds.
And BK knows it, of course. Instead of the overt, humorous and glossy ads that dominate U.S. markets, Puerto Rico’s ads opt for slick fonts and wholesome graphics to keep a hip edge for the kids without alienating the blue hairs. They highlight the extreme convenience of giant chains — a variety of options for breakfast, lunch and dinner in one easy location. Low dollar amounts jump out from behind steaming burgers, piled high with all the fixings, insisting that the megachain will offer more bang — or in this case more burger — for your buck.
It seems dangerous. Even in the middle of paradise, the almighty American burger reigns supreme.