Dispatches from a Burger-Eating Contest

Discourse on a burger eating contest may seem somewhat out of place here, but bear with me for a moment – I promise there’s a point to all of this. First, though, some background is necessary.

For 364 days a year, the concept of competitive eating is beyond me – I cannot understand its appeal, nor do I especially care to try. Not that I thought about it especially often, but I suppose I used to have this attitude all 365. Then, I was persuaded to put aside my indifference-verging-on-disdain for the ‘sport’ when Z-Burger, a favorite neighborhood burger joint, held its first annual “Independence Day Burger Eating Championship” last year.

Two friends (Sarah and Alex) and I decided to attend since we had become a little obsessed with the restaurant throughout our senior year of high school, and we figured that if we were going, we needed to go all out. Choosing to celebrate our love of the restaurant rather than support a particular competitor (we didn’t know who was competing, anyway), T-shirts were made and copies of the restaurant’s logo were affixed to headbands, shorts, and sunglasses.

We went and had a good time, so going back this year was an obvious decision. Having lost Alex to inflexible working hours, Sarah and I once again donned our “Z-Burger Fan Club” shirts for the competition’s second year. As we arrived, people eyed our homemade Z-gear with mild interest, amusement, or concern. Clearly, the competitors were to be the main spectacle of the day, but we were not going unnoticed ourselves.

One of the “Ladies of Z-Burger” there to help keep score came over and asked about the outfits. “We should get you guys on TV,” she says, impressed. Indeed, while I don’t think we ever ended up making the cut into any news stories that aired, we did end up on camera a few times during the contest, as the event was both streamed live on the web and taped for some local media outlets.

After the contest, the crowd had their chance to mingle with the contestants. Sarah and I took pictures with a few of our favorites, and a few commented that they remembered us from the year before. The restaurant’s owner, Peter, took pictures with Sarah and me, and the three of us do a number of pictures with several contestants. I went to get my shirt signed by the second- and third-place finishers (the winner, who had defended his previous championship, had already signed after winning the previous year). As “Mouth of the South” finishes signing, I turn away and am stopped by a woman, who hands me one of the t-shirts handed out at the contest. She asks, excited, “Do you think you would be able to get him to sign it?”

Sarah and I pose with first- and second-place finishers Furious Pete (left) and Mouth of the South (right).

Thinking back over it all, I realized that Sarah and I had become, to a certain extent, part of the event – just like the competitive eaters were essential to the viewing experience at the contest, so were fans who would get into it enough to, say, draw giant Z’s across a pair of shutter shades, or shout enthusiastically for anything. In taking on that role, we’d acquired a celebrity-light status, becoming the bridge between the elite of the event and the attendees. The woman who asked me to get her shirt signed, for example, saw me and figured that I had some higher level of access than she did. And who knows? Maybe I did. After all, nobody else got offered the big check presented to the winner after he declined to take it with him.

At the risk of overanalyzing the day, I must say that I found this to be a very informative experience on the topic of Digital Fame, even if there was nothing digital about it. In a rough sense, I can see some similarities between Sarah, Alex, and I pulling out all the stops to go to the contest and, say, someone who posts a video on YouTube. The motivations (sometimes conscious, but sometimes less so) to be noticed, to bewilder, and to be laughed at pervaded the experience, even if in retrospect we couldn’t exactly understand why we wanted to be such spectacles in the first place.

But there was more to the day than just our wanting people to laugh at us. We were trying to engage with the brand that we idolized in a way that could be viewed as “selling out,” but really has become quite acceptable and typical in an age where it’s normal to “Like” a clothing brand on Facebook, or tweet at a TV network about how much you enjoyed this week’s episode of your favorite show. Who knows, maybe you might a tweet back, or have your fandom recognized in some other way? Even Haverford’s own snack bar, the Coop, has giveaways for its Facebook fans. And, back at the contest, our costumes were rewarded with tokens worth free food on future visits. Marketing is nothing new (nothing would have stopped me from dressing up for the contest in the days before Facebook), but I’ve realized that social media has found new ways to entrench publicity stunts and brand-name consumerism in our culture. There’s definitely much more on this topic worth exploring, and I hope to do that during the seminar.

Still, I don’t want to end with the sentiment that the only thing social media boils down to is marketing, because I feel like there has to be more to it. The only problem is that the “more” is much harder to identify. I came into this seminar interested in gaining an understanding of the motivations of those in pursuit of Digital Fame, and I think my experience at the burger eating contest was a good first step down that path. Now, new questions are emerging, and I look forward to keeping you updated as we look for the answers.