A recent series of ads by International House of Pancakes has been widely ridiculed. Despite their success in erasing the “Pancake” at the root of their identity through the widely used acronym IHOP, the brand seemed frustrated at its inability to untether itself from the unyielding association with pancakes carried by the “P”. The first widely mocked attempt had IHOP fully abandoning the P to become IHOB. The switch from P to B hoped to sever the pancake association once and for all in order to make way for a world of burgers. No doubt the switch from P to B also signaled an intention to offer IHOP/IHOB as a suitable destination for all times of the day.
So hapless was this attempted rebranding that IHOB quickly became IHOP in short order. One would have thought they had learned their lesson, but a new campaign emerged that amazingly doubled down on the losing strategy of the prior failed rebranding. Only this time IHOP confusingly teased the new campaign by asking consumers to guess what the P of IHOP stands for. Um pancakes? Well, it turns out that the P now indeed does stand for pancakes but the twist is that “pancakes” are no longer pancakes. IHOP is introducing Angus Beef Pancakes into its menu. The surprise is that the pancakes are actually burgers, only now they are designated as pancakes. To add to the confusion, the pancakes-formerly-known-as-burgers includes a hamburger (in the traditional sense) with a pancake (in the traditional sense) in the middle.
No doubt we can read all of this with a hint of its intended cheek and irony. Rather than crawl away from the infamy of the IHOB debacle, they capitalize on the notoriety and make fun of themselves. After all, there is no bad press, right? This may in fact prove to be a winning strategy. It may also continue the steep decline of the brand straight into a pancake purgatory from which it will never emerge. Neither outcome is of concern to us. Rather, we should be attentive to what this brazen campaign can tell us about the psyche in a time when burgers can become pancakes and pancakes can become burgers — when old-fashioned-actual-pancakes-still-called-pancakes can sit atop the very burgers that are at one and the same time also called pancakes. Again, the fact that this might be intentionally ironic is of no interest to us. That such a form of irony is even thinkable (let alone forms the basis for selling millions of actual pancake burgers) must be our question.
What does it tell us that it is meaningful, on top of potentially profitable, to inject an association in the consumer’s mind between hamburgers and pancakes by simply putting a pancake on a burger, an act that heretofore has never been thinkable, let alone desirable? Of course, all advertising exploits signification in the hopes of solidifying signifying pairs (i.e. car-sex) that reinforce consumer-buying habits. Until now that process involved a consistent internal logic even if it was an internally consistent absurdist sensibility (as in Geico ads). With the advent of the IHOP/IHOB interventions, we are seeing something new: the arrival of a form of advertising that intentionally operates without its own internal consistency. Thus a burger is a pancake and a pancake is a pancake. The internal inconsistency is literally put in our faces and shoved down our throats — a primal feeding that nobody wants or needs, a force-feed of behavioral conditioning that would fill even BF Skinner with existential dread. But the novelty here is not only in the inconsistency but in the concrete literality of the gesture. This is a literality that psychoanalysis tells us is characteristic of psychosis and which precludes the ability to tolerate ambiguity or conflict, the ability to separate fantasy from reality or the ability to make use of metaphorical thinking. We should not be fooled by the ironic surface of this advertising campaign nor should we think that the appearance of self-reflection or self-mockery precludes the greater structure of psychotic literality at play.
It is important to add that by saying this I refer to psychosis in a way that is consistent with a Lacanian approach. For Lacan, psychosis is a structure characterized by the failure of language or signification. A psychotic can use language prodigiously but nevertheless that language fails to work within the Symbolic. For Lacan, the Symbolic comprises one of three registers that include the Imaginary and the Real. The Symbolic register includes the use of metaphor, the use of language to substitute one term for another. Without the symbolic, there is no metaphor. The Symbolic also refers to the whole realm of language that is connected to culture as a whole, that which a person is born into but which is experienced as a foreign element assuring that, unlike animals, there is no natural instinctual functioning that guides humans in life and in sexual relationships. Without the Symbolic, words are things, concrete entities with no reference to a world outside of their own self-created phantasm. Rather then develop a campaign symbolizing the connection of the pair hamburger-pancake, IHOP instead created a pancake burger. The literality here is properly psychotic. It only becomes thinkable as a means to sell things today, in a time when such quasi psychosis, or what Jacques Alain-Miller has called “ordinary psychosis” reigns as an increasingly dominant mode of cognition. Indeed the signifying structure of the pancake burger enacts the structure of psychosis. Note the way that the pancake in the center has no buffer separating it from the burger (now also called pancake). The burger pancake and the pancake pancake exist without mediation. Our only recourse in the face of such insanity is to literally consume this monstrosity, to destroy through tearing and chewing, a form of primal oral aggression described in the work of Freud and in the elaborations of Melanie Klein, who shows the underlying core of what she calls a “paranoid-schizoid” defense reminiscent of psychosis. For Klein, the paranoid-schizoid position describes the earliest pre-oedipal relationship between the infant and their mother. Based on her clinical work with children, Klein theorized that infants lack the capacity to tolerate dependency and helplessness. They cannot integrate the image of the loving mother with the “good breast” along with the mother who is unpredictable and at times disappointing and unavailable. As a result, young children have a fantasy life characterized by a need to radically separate the good from the bad, resulting in a paranoid fantasy life in which one must kill or be killed.
Having said this, I don’t want to exaggerate my claim for the psychotic dimensions of the pancake burger campaign. Just as Burger King once promised to let you “have it your way,” IHOP offers us a model of limitless choice — a model which no longer has to specify a way that is “your way” but instead offers you all ways at once, without loss or choice. Such a model is not necessarily psychotic. While psychotic foreclosure rejects the choice or the conflict entirely, IHOP offers a solution to the impossible problem of limitless choice by offering a choice that no one wished for. I will admit that such a reading is possible, but having said so, I reject it. Many things within the psychotic field imitate the conflict of a more properly neurotic struggle but are actually a sort of crypt or graveyard of what once was part of the Symbolic but now stand as morbid testimony of something now lost forever.
Speaking of Burger King, is it a coincidence that the IHOP fiasco came at a time when Burger King was also longing for an alternative to the familiar Whopper. It came in the form of the intriguingly named Impossible Burger. What was impossible about the Impossible Burger? How is its impossibility related to the sort of impossibility of the IHOP pancake burger? The Impossible Burger, made with no meat at all, was said to miraculously mimic the taste of an actual hamburger. Of course, the logical agenda was said to be the introduction of a healthier alternative to the traditional Whopper. By no means can we rest with this explanation. To eat the Impossible is not simply to bypass the need for meat. At the level of fantasy, the Impossible Burger mimics real life, but with a difference: just as other technologies promise to rejuvenate our basic ability to enjoy human perception by allowing us to revive its well-worn pleasures as new and exciting. Through virtual reality we can see actual three-dimensional space! We can be like people walking in actual space seeing things! So too does the Impossible Burger attempt to bypass our saturation with the all too familiar pleasure of eating a hamburger, only to reintroduce us to a Whopper whose sole virtue is its impossible quality of tasting like a Whopper.
Taken together, these two burger interventions present us with two meditations on the impossible. Each in their own way, invite us to take a bite of the Real. For Lacan, the Real is that which remains beyond both the Symbolic and the Imaginary, the realm of images and the visual. The real is a pancake that is a burger or a burger that performs the impossible feat of tasting just like a burger, the burger is the Impossible calling for a solution to a palpable sense ennui, a sense that we are approaching a deadlock in our capacity to sublimate or symbolize that will leave us like goons eating our last meals: Pancake Burgers or Impossible Burgers.
Evan Malater is a psychoanalyst in private practice in Manhattan.