Lisa Taylor was 29 when she agreed to travel the country in a black French maid outfit to promote a cheeseburger for Hardee’s, a fast food chain run by President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for labor secretary.
It was another overtly sexual social promotion from a company known for its racy advertising. As CEO of CKE Restaurants, the parent company of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., Andy Puzder has drawn attention for overseeing television ads that showed a swimsuit-clad Paris Hilton washing a car before digging into a cheeseburger.
“The whole industry that you work for is sexist,” said Taylor, a stage name for the actress and teacher who lives in the Midwest. “You’re paid strictly for how you look.”
Puzder has repeatedly defended the ads, claiming he wanted to appeal to a young, male demographic.
“I like our ads. I like beautiful women eating burgers in bikinis,” he told Entrepreneur in 2015. “I think it's very American."
If approved by the Senate, Puzder will head a federal agency tasked with promoting a workforce that is nearly 50 percent women. He will also have jurisdiction for enforcing anti-discrimination laws, including sex discrimination, among federal contractors and subcontractors.
Women’s rights advocates, Democrats and labor organizations have criticized his appointment, not least because of the depiction of women in his company's advertising.
“To possibly have a secretary of labor who is the CEO of a company whose ads objectify women is an abomination,” Madonna Badger, who runs an ad agency that aims to promote a positive image of women, told NBC.
Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, said: “Mr. Puzder is promoting a deeply offensive and misogynistic view of women: that women are sexual objects to be used to sell fast food. It’s really disgusting.”
While the company's television ads are well known, their sexualized road show hasn't received the same attention. On the tour for Hardee’s, Taylor joined three other actresses, the so-called “‘French me’ Femmes” to advertise the French Dip Thickburger across the South and Midwest in the summer of 2009.
The sandwich consisted of sliced roast beef on top of a burger patty and melted Swiss cheese, with au jus dipping sauce on the side.
“Meat was in essence a condiment,” David Johnson, then-creative director of Ngage, the ad agency hired by Hardee’s for the promotion, said of the meat-on-meat sandwich.
To riff on the French-themed burger, Johnson said, the actresses dressed as maids during the tour.
“You’re hired to portray a look and that personality type,” Taylor said of the promotion. “That led people to think they could treat you a certain way.”
Taylor and the other actresses — clad in black miniskirts, fishnet stockings, choker necklaces and garters — teased shirtless men with feather dusters at auto races while plugging the burger. The Femmes asked men through fake French accents when they first French kissed. They offered to wipe radio hosts’ mouths after they took a bite of the burger.
For Taylor, the job was standard. Hardee’s did not ask for anything out of the ordinary; it’s the business that is inherently sexist, she said. Dealing with “handsy” men and “creepy,” unsolicited comments is in the job description for a promotion like the Hardee’s one.
“You’re used to that like lecherous, gross guy coming up to you. That was the whole point,” she said. “You’re wearing this French maid costume, giving out coupons. You deal with it. That’s your job.”
The promotion was aimed specifically to attract 18 to 34-year-old men — “hungry young guys,” as Puzder describes them.
It was a dynamic that made Taylor at times uncomfortable, but one she accepted because it was part of the job.
“It’s almost like you put on your mask,” she said. “But if I was just an ordinary citizen living my life, I would be just grossed out if a guy was like ‘can I take a picture with you?’ or ‘you’re hot!’”
Taylor never interacted with Puzder and was hired by an independent ad agency, not directly by Hardee's. But for Badger and other critics of the Cabinet nominee, the sort of advertising his company produced has wider implications for how women are treated in the workforce and in society as a whole.
“Women are not props to be portrayed as scantily clad burger eating sex toys for anyone's viewing pleasure,” Badger told NBC. “Until women are portrayed as equal, we will not be treated as such.”
CKE Restaurants and the Trump transition team did not respond to requests for comment.