Conversations around mental health are nothing new, but a fast food giant weighing in? That’s rare. Enter Burger King, whose new ad campaign is by no means a slam dunk, but nonetheless offers much-needed food for thought.
Burger King recently rolled out its Real Meals campaign in an effort to bring attention to mental health. The initiative, in partnership with Mental Health America, is meant to coincide with May being Mental Health Awareness Month and acknowledges that “No one is happy all the time. And that’s OK.” The meals come in different moods: the Pissed Meal, Blue Meal, Salty Meal, YAAAS Meal and DGAF Meal.
The ad campaign received mixed reviews after becoming a Trending Moment on Twitter, with some dubbing the lineup “Unhappy Meals” and criticizing Burger King for capitalizing on something as serious as Mental Health Awareness Month.
Indeed, when I first heard about the campaign, my biggest concern was that the company was trivializing mental illness in the name of selling hamburgers. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 46.6 million adults in the U.S. experience mental illness in a given year, and that isn’t something to be taken lightly. Could Burger King contribute to the conversation in a way that was respectful and impactful while simultaneously being a commercial brand? I wasn’t sure.
I reached out to Burger King to learn more about the thinking behind the campaign and the brand’s response to those critical of the “Real Meals.”
“The main intent behind this idea was to put a spotlight around the fact that today, society tends to think one needs to be happy all the time,” Burger King CMO Fernando Machado told me via email. “And that’s not the case. Having a range of emotions is normal and that’s all right.”
The campaign is a bold move, to be sure. In an age when mental illness is still so stigmatized, many brands simply shy away from discussing the topic altogether. But the fast-food chain, utilizing its reach and influence, wanted to confront those stigmas head-on, raising awareness and starting a conversation around mental health. Like so many, the brand realizes that silence helps no one. And, in addition to the new menu items, they also made a donation to Mental Health America, though Machado declined to comment on the specific amount donated.
As someone who has battled mental health issues in the past, I applaud Burger King’s intention. People are talking, especially on social media, which means that the campaign is making an impact and is clearly a conversation we need to be having.
Was the campaign executed perfectly? No.
It had its flaws and was misguided in parts, especially when it came to framing what mental illness is. Real mental illness isn’t having a bad day or being in a “pissy mood,” as one of their new meals suggests. There’s a medical difference between feeling sad or just out of sorts for a day and the type of symptoms that go along with chronic, sometimes debilitating conditions like borderline personality disorder or schizophrenia. The latter is a brain disease, not just a passing feeling, and Burger King acknowledging that important distinction would have made its accompanying video even more powerful.
With the Real Meals campaign, I would have liked to have seen a deeper, more intimate look at mental health. Perhaps that’s the real lesson here–it’s not enough to simply say that mental illness exists. If “real” was the goal here, why not share real stories of people and put a human face behind these complicated and misunderstood illnesses? The key (and what other brands should learn from this) is approaching this topic without seeming flippant or insincere.
In the end, it’s important to remember that mental illness isn’t a gimmick. It’s not a marketing ploy. It’s a complex issue that is relevant for more than one month every year in May. Discussions on mental illness certainly don’t end here, but Burger King is at least starting a conversation; I’d take the beginnings of a conversation over silence any day.