The commercial, part of a new campaign ad series, aired for about a week before being rotated out, as was planned from the start. But it prompted outrage among activists and on social media outlets, with a slew of horrified vegetarians taking the eatery to task for its condescending approach.
“Though I applaud any fast food chain that offers a veggie burger, and I hope that more do, the idea that not eating animals is reserved solely for teenage girls going through a phase is obviously meant to insult both vegans and girls,” Jasmin Singer, executive director of Our Hen House, a New York-based multimedia vegan activism organization, told Yahoo! Shine. “Why is Red Robin insulting the very customers it's reaching out to?”
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) echoed Singer's concerns with an official statement on the matter. "PETA is thrilled that Red Robin has veggie burgers, and we agree with the many comments that the one-liner in the commercial is a bit outdated," it said. "Thirteen percent of the U.S. population now identifies as vegetarian or vegan [according to Public Policy Polling], which is one reason why more and more burger joints and other restaurants continue to add a wider variety of vegetarian and vegan dishes to their menus, including Red Robin, Johnny Rockets, Fuddruckers, Smashburger, and Denny's."
On Tuesday, Red Robin told its vegetarian customers it was sorry. "If anyone was offended by the ad, we sincerely apologize," spokesperson Kevin Caufield told Yahoo! Shine. "We value all our guests, including those who want vegan and vegetarian options."
The eatery, Caufield added, has offered both a vegetarian Gardenburger and vegan Boca Burger for several years, and said the commercial "was intended to increase awareness of these vegetarian options in an irreverent, lighthearted way."
Still, online critics were multiplying as of Tuesday afternoon.
“My husband and I used to get your Gardenburger—but after your insulting ad, you have lost our business,” wrote one woman on the restaurant’s Facebook page, echoing the comments of an ever-growing slew of others. “What on earth made your marketing people think this was a good idea to insult the 600 million vegetarians on our planet? I will never visit your restaurant again. Stupid, stupid move.”
Twitter also buzzed with comments in the same vein, taking Red Robin to task from every angle of the no-meat lifestyle. “Being a vegetarian isn't ‘a phase,’ Red Robin. What's humane about factory farming?” asked one, with another noting, “Just saw a really insulting @redrobinburgers ad. Don't mock a person's decision to live a longer life.”
The latest study about the health benefits of vegetarianism, published in early June in the Journal of the American Medical Association, showed that non-meat-eaters were less susceptible to heart disease, diabetes and kidney failure and that they generally lived longer than carnivores.
Recent surveys have found that anywhere from 5 to 13 percent of Americans are vegetarians. That amounts to at least 15 million people—and potential Red Robin customers—many of whom did not find the ad funny.
But can't vegetarians just loosen up and realize it's all in good fun? It was a question tackled by animal advocate and vegan blogger Katrina Donovan Fleming in a June 11 essay, "Just a Joke: Confessions of a 'Humorless Vegan,'" on Our Hen House.
Exclusionary humor and its acerbic aftertaste are nothing new, of course. Think of all the jokes that are based in racism. The dumb blond jokes. Antigay jokes. This type of humor is a not-so-subtle way of communicating to one’s companions: ‘We’re better,’” she observes. “The real zinger of exclusionary humor, of course, is that no matter how diplomatically one speaks against it, the perpetrator can retort in a passive-aggressive way, ‘Jeez. Have a sense of humor. It’s just a joke!’”
So what do you do, Donovan Fleming asks, “when your sister-in-law quips that she’d like her steak cooked so rare that ‘it’s still mooing’ and then glances to observe your reaction?”
Or when a national chain restaurant likens your eating philosophy to the whims of a flighty teen? You can react with horror, or laugh it off—or better yet, strive for middle ground, she writes.
“The key, it seems, is to remember that there is probably a kind soul behind the offending joke, and to then connect to the person on that level,” Donovan Fleming suggests. “Very few people would actually find animal abuse funny. If you can plug into that, share some food for thought, and give the person the benefit of the doubt, incredible things can result.”