WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald Trump ignited another debate over the objectification of women this week by nominating for labor secretary the chief executive of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, a fast-food empire whose marketing relies on bikini-clad supermodels suggestively munching hamburgers and strips of bacon.
For years, Andrew Puzder, the CEO of CKE Restaurants who was picked by Trump on Thursday, has faced staunch criticism for the racy advertisements. Using sex appeal to sell products, of course, has a long history, but critics considered the approach of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s under Puzder’s leadership over the top — with slick video of women’s nearly nude bodies and suggestive winks to the viewer.
Some of the advertisements were considered too risqué for television while gaining traction on the Internet, and have been compared to soft-core pornography.
“The women in the ads; we never hear them speak, we rarely see them make eye contact with the camera,” said Lindsay Kite, who runs a women’s empowerment blog called Beauty Redefined. “This is the most voyeuristic view of women’s bodies that you can take. And [Puzder] is certainly proud of it.”
Puzder has long defended his company’s commercials as a legitimate marketing strategy, even going as far as to say “beautiful women eating burgers in bikinis” is “very American.” In one interview, Puzder said he used the controversy surrounding the commercials to further his business.
“Complaints aren’t necessarily bad for us,” Puzder told the magazine Entrepreneur in 2015. “What you look at is, you look at sales. And, our sales go up.”
The confirmation process for labor secretary is typically less politicized than for other Cabinet posts (President Obama’s original choice in 2009, Hilda Solis, was confirmed with significant Republican support), but Puzder’s nomination may attract more attention.
On Friday, some Republicans, mostly the establishment types that were slow to support Trump’s candidacy, praised the pick as pro-business, while Democrats focused their criticism on Puzder’s opposition to the minimum wage.
“Andy’s decades of creating jobs across America and dealing with Washington red tape will be a valuable resource as the new administration works to reverse years of slow job growth,” said Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader.
In the 1980s, Puzder was accused of abusing his first wife, according to media reports at the time of their divorce. He has denied those accusations.
On Friday, liberal groups and women’s rights activists began highlighting Puzder’s history of pushing sexual images as a reason to oppose his nomination.
“Women should not have to deal with that mentality in the workplace, and they certainly should not have to deal with it coming from the department that is charged with protecting workers,” said Marge Baker, president for a liberal think tank, People For the American Way.
“Puzder has used objectifying women as a business model to sell hamburgers,” Baker said. “This is not acceptable for 2016.”
In a statement to the Globe, Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, said Puzder has a history of pushing advertisements that are “deeply sexist and misogynistic.”
Raised in Cleveland, Puzder made his name as a trial lawyer in St. Louis, before rising to president and CEO of CKE Restaurants Inc. Puzder had previously served as general counsel for the restaurant corporation, before taking over as CEO in 2000. He is credited with reviving the group, most known for its Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s fast-food franchises, which now generates $1.4 billion in annual revenue and employs more than 75,000 people in the United States.
Nationally, there are more than 3,750 CKE Restaurants, the campaign said in a press release, and most are owned and operated in the Southern and Midwestern United States.
In 2011, Puzder also served as an economic adviser to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
“Andy Puzder has created and boosted the careers of thousands of Americans, and his extensive record fighting for workers makes him the ideal candidate to lead the Department of Labor,” Trump said in the nomination announcement.
Puzder acknowledges that he is the driving force behind the controversial marketing campaigns that Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s used in recent years.
The usage began in 2005, when an advertisement for a Carl’s Jr. BBQ burger showed socialite Paris Hilton washing a car in a revealing outfit and high heels.
In 2014, in response to another suggestive advertisement, Lindsay Kite and her twin sister, who co-created the Beauty Redefined site, started the Twitter hashtag #MorethanMeat and #CuttheCarls to ask people to boycott Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s.
The social media campaign received thousands of online supporters.
Further angering his critics, Puzder has dismissed criticism of his company’s advertisements, saying that the restaurants are only trying to target “young hungry men.”
Kite called his statements “unapologetic.”
Of Puzder’s nomination, she said, “It further normalizes and justifies this barbaric and backwards view of women.”
“The first step to justifying violence against someone is when you view them as less than human or an object,” Kite said.
However, as of Friday, Democratic politicians steered clear of the discussion of Puzder’s marketing tactics and focused on his opposition to increases in the minimum wage and his call for more automation in the workforce.
“Andrew Puzder looks down on working people. At Hardee’s & Carl’s Jr., he got rich squeezing front-line workers on wages, overtime & benefits,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts as part of a Thursday night tweetstorm.
Puzder has riled workers’ rights advocates by saying he would support replacing employees with machines, because automated workers are “always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.”
Like most of Trump’s Cabinet nominees, Puzder was an outspoken Trump cheerleader during the general election season.
When Trump’s campaign was thrown into turmoil after the 2005 Access Hollywood video surfaced with Trump discussing how he grabbed women by their genitals, Puzder was one of 100 business leaders who wrote a public letter supporting Trump.
Recently, when asked by a television anchor about the prospect of serving in a Trump administration, Puzder said a Cabinet position would be “the most fun you could have with your clothes on.”
Astead W. Herndon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.