When do cross the ethical line in marketing? How do know you might be at risk for crossing it? Those answers not always going to be readily clear—but in every case, you should have them answered before you launch any marketing effort. Because once the genie’s out of the bottle…

For Burger King, if they had thought through one of their multimedia publicity efforts, they might have saved themselves some animosity from the very public they were trying to reach.

In honor of International Women’s Day, Burger King UK thought it would show its support through print ads that were headlined with:

“Women belong in the kitchen.”

It was an ironic use meant to turn the sexist idea on its head. In actuality, Burger King was introducing their Helping Equalize Restaurants Scholarship program, which provided financial assistance to female Burger King employees who wanted to pursue careers in the culinary arts.1

Unfortunately, it was when the ad was repurposed for Twitter that things started to go wrong.

Because tweets are often shared individually, the first tweet, meant to provoke, was shared far more than the follow-up tweets that would have clarified the headline.

However, the full thread itself was this:

“Women belong in the kitchen.”

“If they want to, of course. Yet only 20% of chefs are women. We’re on a mission to change the gender ratio in the restaurant industry by empowering female employees with the opportunity to pursue a culinary career. #IWD”

“We are proud to be launching a new scholarship program which will help female Burger King employees pursue their culinary dreams!”

So, for many Twitter users, all they saw was the retweet, “Women belong in the kitchen”. You can imagine what the reaction might have been—and it was just that.

In a matter of about 12 hours, Burger King issued an apology and deleted its International Women’s Day tweet.

“We hear you. We got our initial tweet wrong and we’re sorry. Our aim was to draw attention to the fact that only 20% of professional chefs in UK kitchens are women and to help change that by awarding culinary scholarships. We will do better next time.”

“We decided to delete the original tweet after our apology. It was brought to our attention that there were abusive comments in the thread, and we don’t want to leave the space open for that.”2

While thousands saw and liked the tweet and agreed with its intended tactics, there was quite a lot of sentiment in the other direction as well. Rather than being supportive of women, the initial headline on its own just repeated a very old misogynistic comment.

The real message of support was being drowned out by a perception that Burger King was perpetuating the very thing they were mocking.

And that’s the real irony here.

Think about—do you really want to send a message that could easily be taken the wrong way?

Are you willing to risk angering a portion of your public to gain attention and kudos?

I can tell you now—you DON’T. Negativity is going to drown out any positive coverage you might get from pushing people’s buttons.

Sure, in this case, the press might understand and agree with your intent, but don’t hold your breath for them to forgive your methods; they’re not going to craft headlines lauding your good intentions. Nope—they’re going to highlight your mistake:

USA Today: Burger King UK under fire for tweeting ‘Women belong in the kitchen’ on International Women’s Day

The Drum: Burger King apologizes after ‘women belong in the kitchen’ tweet provokes backlash

Forbes: ‘Women Belong In The Kitchen’: Burger King’s International Women’s Day Tweet Goes Down In Flames

Did Burger King cross an ethical line in using a provocative headline that was taken out of context and demeaned women? Well, Burger King never actually meant to use the headline by itself, so you could fault them in part for not considering the ramifications of the headline alone. After all, it backfired when people only saw the headline and didn’t actually READ the other tweets.

Provocative headlines can be an acceptable way to get eyeballs but avoiding a provocative headline that risked the wrath of their audience should have been an easy win for Burger King. I’d say that the fast-food giant would agree in hindsight that the risk just wasn’t worth it as many ended up condemning something that was actually meant to be a goodwill gesture. Knowing your headline could be misconstrued as clickbait meant to upset the very people you’re trying to reach—that’s unethical.

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  1. Griner, David. “Burger King Gets Grilled for ‘Women Belong in the Kitchen’ Tweet Supporting Female Chefs.” AdWeek, 8 March 2021, adweek.com/media/burger-king-gets-grilled-for-women-belong-in-the-kitchen-tweet-supporting-female-chefs/.
  2. Haden, Jeff. “Burger King’s Response to Its ‘Women Belong in the Kitchen’ Tweet Was a Missed Opportunity.” Inc., 9 March 2021, inc.com/jeff-haden/burger-kings-response-to-its-women-belong-in-kitchen-tweet-was-a-missed-opportunity.html.