Advertising as research?

Here’s an interesting piece of “independent research” for Burger King that has a lot of people pretty upset. This ad campaign, presented as a documentary, has BK researchers traveling to remote areas and asking people who have never had a hamburger, to take part in taste testing to indicate a preference for a Whopper versus a Big Mac. You can watch the video yourself here: Whopper Virgins.

Okay, so this isn’t really scholarly research nor is it any kind of research that would be subject to the guidelines of the Tri Council Policy Statement (TCPS), if it was conducted in Canada. Likely it would be deemed marketing research or even more simply the everyday work of marketing and not research at all. Suffice it to say, it likely would never be reviewed by an ethics review board.

But let’s step back a bit and think: If this research, which essentially asks persons who have not been previously exposed to a phenomenon (in this case, the hamburger) to indicate a preference (Whopper versus Big Mac), was instead conducted by a psychologist at a Canadian University or a hospital, it would in fact be deemed to be research and would in fact be then subject to the principles and guidelines articulated in the TCPS.

What would your ethics review board say about this “study”?

A few points or questions come to mind, at first glance.

What kind of informed consent process were the participants offered? Seeing as the researchers note that they did not have an understanding of the notion of a hamburger, can we expect that they would then understand that their images (and thus their identity) would be used to promote a product using Western style advertising (and perhaps not even their preferred product!)?

Interestingly, when the researchers appear on camera in the commercial/documentary, they are labelled as “independent” researchers. Seeing as ethics review boards are in fact justifiably concerned with, among other things, researchers’ potential conflicts of interest, the use of deception, and dissemination of research findings (such as a documentary in which the researchers are represented as “independent”), would this be seen as either a conflict of interest, an inappropriate use of deception or a misrepresentation in the dissemination of findings?

What people seem most upset about, and perhaps justifiably, when they view this video is what they see as the exploitation of the participants. Those who chose to take part made a conceivably non-coerced choice (many are shown refusing to take part; some are shown choosing the Big Mac), which was validated and included as part of a data set, we assume… They likely weren’t aware that people might be viewing them as naïve or even primitive — the narration of the video emphasizes the difficulty many people had in figuring out how to simply hold and eat the hamburger. It would have taken only a few seconds to show someone how to hold a Western-style hamburger…however, clearly, the success of the campaign, in part, rests upon the ability of BK to not only illustrate the naivety of the people in the campaign but also to highlight how BK then brought the flame broiled Whopper, in an apparent act of Western altruism (some have noted that this is far less like altruism and much more like the kind of misplaced altruism we call colonialism), to remote villages and communities.

At the end of the day, even though those in the video call themselves “researchers”, this really isn’t research, of course. But it does demonstrate some of the problems ethics review boards are having with projects that exist at the edge of the domain of “research” — e.g. quality assurance, program evaluation, professional practice. While these kinds of projects, according to the TCPS, do not require ethics review and are clearly outside of the jurisdiction of review boards, reasonable people would agree that they should be ethically sound and that there should be some kind of oversight.

~ by Nancy Walton on December 15, 2008.

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