Cowboys, Impossible Whoppers and the stories that sell food

Plant-based burger ads offer a new twist on the cowboy icon while perpetuating industrial food culture.

 

A recent TV commercial for Burger King's Impossible Whopper relies on the same cowboy mythology that corporate food systems have used for generations.

In a recent TV commercial, cowboy hats and neon lights fill a honky-tonk. Diners munch on juicy burgers wrapped in paper ads for Burger King’s classic Whopper. A blond man with a handlebar mustache looks into the camera and says, “You can’t imitate beef; it just tastes better.” Another man, in a tall cowboy hat and blue button-up shirt, declares, “I’m a damn fool.”

He’s been duped. Just like a woman in a jean jacket and wide-brimmed felt hat, who, in amazement, says, “That’s an Impossible Whopper?”

It is. Twenty-one ingredients make up a plant-based patty designed by Impossible Foods to imitate meat, sans the animal slaughter and environmental impacts. As the Impossible Whopper and other fake meats add new links to the industrial food chain, advertisers are leaning into the cultural currency of the modern carnivore. The message behind Burger King’s ad is clear: You can be an American, even a rugged modern-day cowboy, have your burger and eat plants instead of beef. This embrace of Old West iconography shows how large stories loom in American food culture — often masking the consequences of how that food is produced.

FROM LOUIS L’AMOUR TO JOHN WAYNE to the Marlboro Man, cowboys have long been used to sell the story of an imaginary West, whose violent, racist history has been rewritten while its rugged independence is lionized. “The cowboy as a pure white Westerner is a 20th century manifestation of cultural racism,” said Rich Slatta, a professor emeritus at North Carolina State University, who has studied and published books on cowboy culture over four decades. Slatta attributes the myth’s endurance to society’s preference for entertainment over education. Remaining ignorant of the history of Western expansion and focusing on that era’s mythical hero helps American culture normalize and erase Indigenous genocide and colonization, hiding a shameful history underneath a wide-brimmed hat.

At the dawn of the 20th century, trading on the icon of the cowboy helped normalize something else, too — a brand-new food system, one that was increasingly disconnected from local or even regional production. Before Western beef took a prominent place on American dinner plates, people relied on local farms and ranches. But as railroads began to crisscross the continent, refrigerated rail cars brought carcasses from the West and Great Plains to Midwestern slaughterhouses and Eastern Seaboard butcher shops. Selling consumers on the then-novel idea of meat from a thousand miles away required a potent cultural story, as Joshua Specht, a University of Notre Dame professor, describes in his recent book Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-to-Table History of How Beef Changed America. “In places like Chicago, the meatpackers were already figuring out ways to tie into a romantic vision of where the food comes from,” Specht said.

“The West is not only a source of beef, it’s a source of American selfhood. Its iconography is tied strongly to corporate food systems, like the Arby’s cowboy hat, Western burgers and ranch dressing.”

The image of the cowboy lent a familiar face to a food culture that was increasingly spider-webbed across the continent. Even as the open range was enclosed by barbed wire and the beef industry consolidated onto feedlots, cowboys remained a staple of the corporate food industry. “The West is not only a source of beef, it’s a source of American selfhood,” said Mike Wise, a historian at the University of North Texas. “Its iconography is tied strongly to corporate food systems, like the Arby’s cowboy hat, Western burgers and ranch dressing.”

To drive burgers off the table, new meat-substitute companies must contend with those powerful culinary associations, targeting the motivations behind purchases, explained Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist and Golden Gate University professor. Beyond low costs, hungry buyers seek familiarity, pleasing taste and perceived health benefits. One promising way to market imitation meat involves presenting it as indistinguishable from real meat — in other words, just as tasty as the juicy hamburgers the commercial cowboys rave about.

But meat producers aren’t taking kindly to the new purveyors stepping onto their turf. A handful of states, including Wyoming and Montana in the Western U.S., have passed laws to prevent plant-based or lab-created products from using meaty phrases like “hamburger” or “steak” on their packaging. Industry groups like the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association argue such laws are necessary “to take action against products that use misleading labels to confuse consumers about the true nature of their product.”

Whether or not the labeling laws will have an impact is an open question. Yarrow said the packaging requirements are a foolhardy attempt to push out competition and insult consumers’ intelligence: “Nobody’s being duped; people are looking for plant-based alternatives.” Still, the meat-labeling campaign could make it harder for new, alternative products to cash in on meat’s reputation, said Specht. “It’s an attempt to say, ‘You can’t tap into that story,’ ” he said.

A Carl’s Jr. advertisement for their plant-based Beyond Famous Star® with Cheese. Take it from an old Western cowboy turned yoga master: “When the wagon of change comes, you ride along with it,” he says.

“YEAH, I’VE SEEN A LOT out here in the West,” says the star of a different commercial, a grizzled man who resembles Yosemite Sam, as the bass line and rattle of a classic Western song plays in the background. Then the camera pans out, and as he extolls the tastiness of the Carl’s Jr. plant-based Beyond Burger, the cowboy — with waves gently lapping on an ocean shore behind him — moves through a series of contortionist yoga poses. “When the wagon of change comes, you ride along with it,” he says.

The tongue-in-cheek ad illustrates the intersection of the cowboy narrative with a message aimed at changing behavior. After all, if a crusty cowboy can ditch his saddle for a yoga class, why can’t meat eaters exchange meat for a more planet-healthy alternative? Touting the environmental benefits of veggie-based meat alternatives is a central strategy for both Beyond Meats and Impossible Foods. (Impossible Foods’ website, for example, keeps it concise: “Eat meat. Save Earth.”) But their pitch — that industrial meat is bad for the environment and highly processed imitations are the answer — overlooks existing alternatives: ones that require minimal processing and are better for the environment, albeit a bit boring.

But their pitch — that industrial meat is bad for the environment and highly processed imitations are the answer — overlooks existing alternatives: ones that require minimal processing and are better for the environment, albeit a bit boring.

Dutch researchers tackling the question of how to replace protein and other nutrients from meat with environmentally friendly alternatives found that focusing on processed substitutions misses the point. As they reported last year in Trends in Food Science & Technology, alternatives like Beyond Burgers and Impossible Whoppers and other “breakthrough” technologies like lab-grown meat create a high-tech solution where a low-tech one would do: They point to pulse crops, like garbanzo beans and lentils, as alternatives that can fill dietary needs while using fewer resources than meat imitations.

But food choices aren’t driven by the logic of living within environmental limits. They’re largely driven by cultural stories sold by the handful of corporations that dominate the American food-scape.  “Industrial food markets with a romantic vision that makes people feel comfortable,” said Specht. This system — designed to maximize convenience for consumers and profit for processors and distributors — sidesteps a reckoning with the many problems that plague industrial agriculture, including farm and slaughterhouse worker exploitation and environmental degradation. Images like the honky-tonk full of cowboys shocked to find out they’re eating veggie burgers reinforce the idea that food choices are about what a product means, not what it is or how it came to be. “In a perfect universe for industrial food companies,” Specht said, “food doesn’t have a backstory.”   

Carl Segerstrom is an assistant editor at High Country News, covering Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies from Spokane, Washington. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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