The Unhappy Meal Needs More Backlash

Taking advertising to its natural conclusion, Burger King has done away with any moral pretenses and announced late capitalism’s magnum opus: the Unhappy Meal. Burger King’s Twitter account posted a video on May 1, showing off a diverse group of depressed young people in various sad situations, with the caption, “it’s ok to #feelyourway.”

The video — which Burger King has said is in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month — has since garnered 1.7 million views on Twitter and has been the subject of numerous articles calling out its controversial subject matter. But after only a few days, the backlash against Burger King has subsided, and a new normal in advertising has been established. In allowing Burger King to get away with this, we are letting advertisers treat those suffering from mental health issues as just another marketing demographic to be exploited and grown.

Burger King created this video in partnership with Mental Health America, a Better Business Bureau-accredited charity that appears on CharityWatch’s top rated list, to spread awareness about May being mental health month. An ironic move, considering Mental Health America’s own website tells visitors, “Avoid: High-fat dairy, and fried, refined and sugary foods, which have little nutritional value… research shows that a diet that consists primarily of these kinds of foods significantly increases risk of depression.”

We have reached the point in capitalism where the top rated anti-depression charity teams up with the fifth largest fast food chain to market depression-themed hamburger meals that contribute to depression in order to raise awareness about depression.

Having a mental illness has been reduced to an untapped marketing demographic, one that brands have finally deemed too big not to market to. This move is not unprecedented; in February, orange juice brand SunnyD posted on their Twitter, “I can’t do this anymore.” The successful post was widely circulated, gaining 350,000 likes and 150,000 retweets. What appeared as a harmless quip made by a bottle of orange juice ended up being the first move in advertisers closing in on a new demographic.

The absence of an earlier backlash against SunnyD paved the way for Burger King’s current actions, and the absence of a sincere backlash against Burger King should be extremely concerning. The goal of marketing has always been one thing: to create the feeling of lack in a consumer, and present a remedy for that lack. The most famous example of this is underarm deodorant, which came to market in 1912 and was not initially successful. It was not until advertisers started selling not the deoderant, but the idea that body odor was something to be ashamed of, that deodorant caught on.

If we take the goal of advertisers to be this creation of lack, the notion of them marketing depression becomes insidious. In saying that the Unhappy Meal is a meal for people who are “not happy all the time,” Burger King is not only telling those suffering from mental illness they should identify with Burger King, but more largely that anyone who is “not happy all the time” fits into this new demographic they are building.

However, many Twitter users defended Burger King or professed their support of them in the comments of the video, cheering on their first-to-market cashing-in on a previously unacceptable marketing demographic.

As the amount of new demographics narrows everyday, the line between what is and is not acceptable to do in an advertisement becomes harder to define. However, we should not let the lack of marketable demographics excuse this profane attempt by a corporation – and charity – to cash in on blatant human suffering.

Marketing has changed over the last decade as brands increasingly have to compete for attention with influencers, memers, and content producers. Twitter feeds of generic billboard slogans and customer support simply do not draw attention the way that image macros do, and many brands have adopted these strategies into their social media marketing. While the personification of brands is worrying in its own right, it is much more preferable to corporations producing a lack of mental illness.

Nicolas Perez is a third year Literary Journalism major, he can be reached at naperez1@uci.edu.