It’s summer in America. The sun is shining. People snuggled in inner tubes lilt lazily along a lake. Children shriek as they run through sprinklers. Teenagers jump merrily into a pool, enjoying the freedom that summer brings. Everyone is happy, and why not, it’s BBQ Day.
In the 1950s, the patio family had quickly replaced the Rockwellian image of hearth and home as Americans moved into the suburbs and shifted our leisure activities into the backyard. Ever since then, marketing companies have used these outdoor images to drive consumer sales.
This year we were assailed by Burger King’s “BBQ Day” marketing strategy. While the cheerful sounds of “Walk of Life,” hums in the background, a script slowly appears on the screen.
“Smile America. It’s BBQ Day.”
“A day you look forward to.”
“A day that lightens your mood.”
“A day to enjoy great food and enjoy great company.”
“Great food and great company,” might be the very definition of barbecue, a word that encompasses a style of food and a gathering of people that is distinctly American. Collectively, we seem to have created this image, and yes, it is more than just a representation of suburban America. A family gathering for food and companionship is, in my opinion, one of the few truly universal ideas we have as a species.
What Burger King and a group of faceless ad executives in New York high rises are selling us isn’t great food or good company. Instead, they tell us to leave the grill cold and eat burgers, fries, and a new series of “barbecue” like sandwiches. After all, who really has time to spend cooking with the family? Parents who lament the loss of connection with their kids can’t complain if this is how they spend dinner time, let alone “BBQ Day.”
When I first started writing about barbecue, I thought of it as a fun and frivolous pursuit, a distraction from the monotony of my then, day job. Not long afterward, I received an email from a man looking to purchase a grill for his family. Never having owned one, he needed some direction on what to buy and how to put together a family barbecue. Yes, barbecue is many things. Most purists will tell you it has nothing to do with gas grills and burgers, and they are missing the point. What this man wanted was a way to connect with his two teenage children. He asked, in almost desperation, for the formula to create a Saturday barbecue that might help hold his family together after the recent loss of his wife. I never thought of the backyard cookout as a frivolous activity again.
Maybe it is his story that put such a bad taste in my mouth when I saw the Burger King’s “BBQ Day” commercial. Not gathering around the grill, but rather, gathering in the car for takeout seemed worse than distasteful. It was downright un-American; inhuman.
Perhaps those lazy and idyllic days of summer are a myth, but it is a myth that we work hard to achieve. It is too easy to give in to convenience, one of the deadliest sins of our time. If you could construct a narrative for your children, shouldn’t it be filled with summer evenings gathered around the fire? Wouldn’t it be better to take the time and effort to prepare your own BBQ Day? Even if it isn’t perfect, it’s much better than getting it from a drive up window. Your children won’t remember your trip to Burger King, but they will remember you firing up the grill and the good times you spent together as a family.
In my opinion, the universal definition of barbecue is a gathering. It is a collection of family and friends enjoying a simple meal devoid of all the complexities and distractions of daily life. Barbecue isn’t just about the burgers or a sauce from a bottle. It’s a celebration. Barbecue is us silencing technology, turning off our phones, and being together in the dark, under the stars sharing good food and good company. It is an attempt at finding the string that connects us to our primitive past. Once, deep in our history when we sat around the fire, looking up at the heavens, and sharing the stories that would become the foundation of who we are today.
Burger King. Your grill might be on. But so is mine.
You can see the full version of this commercial on YouTube.