Burger King’s “Real Meals” Campaign Doesn’t Feel Real

Have you seen the weird new ad Burger King debuted on Twitter last week?

Burger King based this campaign on the flimsy concept that a jab against McDonald’s Happy Meals could somehow also promote Mental Health Awareness Month. After all, who doesn’t love using competition between giant corporations to contextualize important social issues?

Maybe you watched the video and thought, who cares? In one sense, you’re right — there are much more important things to be mad about happening every day. However, as a marketer, it’s hard not to be annoyed and offended by the trends this ad represents and reinforces: “purpose washing” and brand personification done poorly.

The campaign commodifies the struggle against mental health issues

In their video, Burger King lays out a variety of issues faced by people everywhere — generalized emotional distress, romantic issues, being mistreated at work, raising a child as a single parent — and reduces them to a market segment to whom they can sell fast food.

My colleague Samir Patel has written about brands purpose washing their campaigns: “Companies who want to claim purpose as a core value need to go beyond saying they believe in being responsible, and actively stop doing things that may be in conflict with this — things that may be in an ethical grey area or unsustainable.”

Instead of looking at these real, significant problems rooted in our culture and political economy and seeking out real, transformative solutions, this ad simply urges sad people to buy the hamburgers made for sad people.

The product doesn’t even make any sense

All of these new combo items (the Blue Meal, the Yaaas Meal, the Pissed Meal, the Salty Meal, and the DGAF Meal) contain the same items: a Whopper, fries, and a drink. The only thing that changes is the copy and coloring of the packaging, making the whole exercise pretty condescending and cynical. The campaign claims to celebrate the wide range of human emotions, but if the exact same product is servicing all of these emotional states, it doesn’t seem like much of a celebration.

Beyond that, they chose the “emotions” for the variants extremely poorly. As Vox pointed out, “Yaaas” and “DGAF” aren’t emotions. “Pissed” is a terrible word to put in the name of your food. Nobody needs a reminder that Burger King food is “Salty.” There’s nothing clever, appetizing, or even descriptive about these names — they just serve as reminders of how lazy and forced the entire concept is.

Going even further, the idea of the “Happy Meal” that this campaign is criticizing is very specifically a product for children! The campaign states that “no one is happy all the time,” but this new offering isn’t even competing with Happy Meals.

Cynical purpose-washing campaigns don’t work

The video itself is clumsy. The tone swings wildly between “maudlin” and “irreverent” — the video can’t seem to decide whether or not it wants to be taken seriously.

What makes this campaign even more laughable is that it’s obviously — and predictably — being received poorly by the weary and wary Twitter community.

replies to burger king's tweet

According to a quick social listening analysis, 43% of @BurgerKing’s engagement on Twitter has been negative in the wake of this campaign — compared to a baseline of about 14% over the past two months.

You can see a spike in conversation after the ad debuted on May 1st — the red portion of that bar represents the tweets so negative that machine learning was able to automatically categorize them.

Back in 2013, it felt a little fresh when Denny’s ran a Tumblr full of silly GIFs and comments about TV shows. Fast-forward to 2019, and it feels like every unhealthy food brand is tweeting about their depression. Inauthentic brand personalities have become exhausting and grating.

Focus on making a real impact

As Adweek pointed out, the silver lining around this campaign is that, while extremely clumsy, it does represent a foray into an important area on which corporations and the media have historically been silent. The reason this campaign rings so hollow is because it does nothing to actually make an impact. If Burger King actually wanted to improve the mental health of tens of thousands of people, the company could make an effort to provide health insurance to more of its employees so they could be able to seek out care if needed.

Companies like Patagonia have crafted their entire business model and marketing around making a difference in their space. Even smaller companies like Everlane have authentically brought things like transparency and sustainability to life through every aspect of their business. It’s not an impossible task — it just requires you to put your money where your mouth is.

But if the prevalence of purpose-washing and cynical campaigns has you feeling down, don’t worry — there’s probably a Burger King combo for that.

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